"Well, were you uplifted by that?" inquired a colleague after we had both seen Uttar Priyadarshi (The Final Beatitude), the latest in this year's BITE strand of presentations at the Barbican. And, truth to tell, I wasn't.
The Chorus Repertory Theatre of the eastern Indian state of Manipur, hard by the Burmese border, aims to employ a range of vocal techniques and extreme physical stamina in the presentation of their blend of history and mythology. The story concerns Ashoka, also known as Priyadarshi, the most prominent of the Maurya emperors of third-century-BC India. The historical Ashoka turned aside mid-reign from martial violence towards a life in tune with the Buddhist concept of dharma; in Ratan Thiyam's production, Priyadarshi first attempts to escape his warlike evils by creating a hell for the ghosts of the vanquished, then is instructed by a bhikshu (a mendicant monk) in how to face down Ghor, the demonic figure whom he has appointed lord of this hell. By way of illustration of the horrors in question, we are also shown how a quartet of semi-comic monks are tempted into hell by a squad of succubi and tortured in the inferno: Ghor's minions giggle over mannequin victims not only on a gibbet and in a garrotte, but in a nod towards timelessness also bring forth a guillotine and an electric chair.
The 90 minutes generally unfold with a ritual stateliness; even the sequences of torment have a ceremonial formality. The proceedings (delivered in Manipuri, with a printed synopsis augmented by sparing use of surtitles) open with a chanted Buddhist prayer which, in its earlier hummed phase, keeps sounding oddly as if it might turn into the Last Post; many of the subsequent words are chanted in unison either by the quartet of monks or by male or female choruses. The visuals are at once opulent and simple: Ashoka and Ghor are bedecked, and the chorus periodically carry Buddhist totems, but the monks wear simple saffron and events unfold on a more or less bare stage lit by discrete spots rather than any general wash.
The piece does not hide its status as parable: its message is that we may follow the example of Priyadarshi, attaining ultimate serenity by acknowledging our own evil impulses and thus confining them within ourselves rather than magnifying them as external enemies. Indeed, the didacticism may be too overt for many, amongst whom I regretfully number myself. There is also the problem of cultural tourism: despite our ever greater experience of global works and traditions, we continue too often to venerate pieces like this simply because they are exotic, rather than engaging with the works themselves. This combination of factors makes Uttar Priyadarshi a piece whose impact is aesthetic rather than dramatic a work to admire but not one by which to be fired.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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