Lyric Hammersmith. London W6
Opened 14 February, 2007

The Lyric Hammersmith under David Farr seems to see its mission as setting a storytelling pulse to grand yet human themes. The supreme sources in such an area are surely the world's great religious narratives. In this case the great Hindu epic pretty much has it all, and what Farr feels missing or inadequate he deftly adds or emphasises.

Its central motive force is that fondest notion, all-conquering love. When Lord Rama's wife Sita is abducted by the rapacious Ravana, he spends months searching for her while she in turn refuses to betray him. But Rama is intensely conscious of living his life according to dharma, a strong moral code. The story has many folkloric elements: Queen Kaikeyi, who causes Rama's exile, is simplified here into a wicked-stepmother figure, and Rama and Sita journey through a familiar archetypal forest. Add to that the mischievous yet noble figure of the monkey Hanuman who, when sent to the Himalayas to bring back healing herbs, grows confused and decides in most un-epic language, "Bugger it, I'll take the whole mountain." (The involvement of a monkey army also licenses the groan-out-loud pun "gorilla warfare".)

The spiritual-v.-material conflict is pointed up by turning Ravana from a simple denier of the gods into an exemplar of modern secular acquisitivism: he hankers after Rama's city of Ayodha for its development potential. Farr comes very close to over-egging the pudding here. His discreet handling of the spiritual is far better, as when Hanuman makes a speech to the assembled monkey warriors (i.e. the audience) telling us that we are each of us the chosen of the gods. Nor is the morality bleached into black and white: even Ravana and Kaikeyi are shown to have their own principles.

Farr's direction is very much in a storytelling vein, blending straight-to-audience narrative with heightened dramatic scenes and opting visually for suggestion rather than naturalistic representation. After all, how do you naturalistically portray a magical series of stepping stones across an ocean? Far better to use a ritualistic movement sequence (underpinned, as so much of the evening is, by an atmospheric percussion-based score by Shri). Paul Sharma and Kolade Agboke combine dignity and passion as Rama and his brother Lakshman, although Vanessa Ackerman is on the strident, even nagging, side as Sita. Richard Simons' Hanuman never lets his playful nature trivialise matters.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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