Little India is an apt title for this retelling of the story of the semi-divine Shakuntala, whose son Bharata is known as the founding father of India (Bharata is another name for India) - for this collaboration between South Indian theatre company Little Jasmine and UK-based Trestle explores Bharata’s life from birth to adolescence.
The production is deceptively simple – there are few words, though there’s a gorgeously complex soundscape (designed by Jules Millard, with music from Konarak Reddy), blending recorded sound with the actors’ live percussion and the distinctive vocals of the south Indian dance form Bharatanatyam. Much of the story is told in dance and gesture, with thrilling martial arts sequences.
In little more than an hour, the three talented performers recount the chance meeting in the forest of Shakuntala and the young king Dushyanta, the night of passion that results in the conception and birth of Bharata and Dushyanta’s desertion of his little family until 16-year-old Bharata leaves his familiar forests to seek his father in the big city.
This may be an ancient myth, but writers Nina Patel and Anna Reynolds find many perennial predicaments of the human condition to make the story resonate today. Dushyanta is an absent father, Shakuntala a single mother – and Bharata a rebellious teenager. Shakuntala must fight male prejudice, which she does literally, with feisty physicality. When Bharata seeks his father, the vivid evocation of the city, with a soundtrack of all the noises of traffic and people so unfamiliar to the young forest dweller, neatly underlines the tension between town and country – and brings the story right into the present.
The conjunction of ancient and modern is wonderfully served by the blend of Indian and other Eastern and Western performance styles and skills that director Emily Gray and her company use and fuse together in their storytelling.
The performers display astonishing versatility. Audrie Woodhouse as Shakuntala is a delight to watch, her expressive eyes and face and delicately eloquent hand gestures speaking volumes, yet somehow making the few words even more telling. Santaj Garewal’s Dushyanta, ardent and callous by turns with Shakuntala, matures convincingly into lonely middle age, and there’s a clever contrast with the hot-headed youth of Ashwin Bolar’s vibrant Bharata in their exciting fight scenes.
The storytelling is matched by the simplicity and versatility of the gorgeous pillars of rich materials of Sophia Lovell Smith’s set and the imaginative use of props - especially the boat that transforms effortlessly into fish, hovel or marriage bed! A magical evening.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Trestle Arts Base, St Albans)