There comes a time when you feel that Peter Brook and his unforgettable production of The Mahabharata have quite a lot to answer for. It comes with David Farr’s version of another Indian epic, the ancient tale of the lovers Rama and Sita in the Ramayana, written six thousand years ago but extant in many versions, and now yet another.
The trouble with this kind of exotic, spiritually earnest and glibly acted pantomime is that the performance has to be very special indeed to match the aspirations and poetry of the original. Farr’s production – mounted in collaboration with the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Bristol Old Vic, whither it will travel after the Hammersmith run – is fairly good, but also fairly pedantic. And at times downright laughable.
There are just seven actors and one busy, percussive, self-advertising musician. Ti Green’s design is the inevitable sloping disc fitted out with slender bamboo trees that have footholds for the actors to clamber on. The lovers are exiled from their homeland in an unfriendly forest with vague echoes of Shakespeare’s Arden or the setting of his Dream. Sita is kidnapped by a nasty, rapacious ruler in the south of the country. A tribe of monkeys in funny head-masks intervenes. Sita wins through, and the happy couple are consumed by fire and turned into gods.
It is all performed with the eagerness of a theatre-in-education troupe, or a children’s television show. Apart from the impressive dignity of Paul Sharma as Ram, the rest of the cast seem to be at terrible odds with the kind of impact they are seeking to make. The Hungarian actress Eva Magyar – so impressive in Kneehigh’s Tristan and Yseult – is almost comically bad as the wicked seducer, while Vanessa Ackerman as the unfortunate Sita is hampered by too soft a voice and too generous a waistline when starved to the bone by her ordeal.
Endless little bits of ingenuity seem so self-conscious: the appearance of an exotic deer with knobbly horns, the dismembered vulture with great black arm attachments, the martial arts in the combat sequences. One episode, where Ram climbs across a self-generating arrangement of sticks and hurdles is genuinely inventive and a bit special.
But otherwise it is hard to see how the event corresponds to any idea of high tragedy and low comedy, or to David Farr’s ambition to explore the conflict in the original text between materialism and religion. It seems to me to be a journey down a politically correct cul de sac with a lot of multicultural box-ticking and half-hearted nods towards theatrically approved ethnic tourism of the type we now need to quickly disavow.