Coming fast on the heels of such diverse films as Deepa Mehta’s complex Heaven on Earth and Danny Boyle’s Oscar®-bound Slumdog Millionaire (cross-references below), it was both instructive and illuminating to attend the preview performance of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. Written in the vicinity of +/-1600 years ago, “Kali’s servant” has crafted a love story for the ages. It“s a rich mixture of the plight of gods, mortals and their respective manipulators.
The Canadian première of director/adaptor Charles Royès appropriately Spartan production is bound to beguile, bemuse and bewilder audiences not only for the Toronto run but also for theatre lovers who need a break from the medal quest at the 2010 Olympics (as well, after the Cultural Olympiad, a mini-Canadian tour is planned while the troupe winds its way home).
Having seen so many “foreign films” (the original language is never foreign to the creators) at the 20th Anniversary of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (cross-reference below), I found myself wondering how the original text would sound. The rhythm, textures and tones of any language are, necessarily, distinct. Fully understanding the decision/need to give the play in English, it was difficult to totally morph back to ancient times given the largely successful employment of music (composer/pianist Reza Jacobs wrote the score—its thundering drums got the pulse racing, the; discreet flute lines were all a couple could ask for; hopefully, the chorus will find more unanimity of pitch as the performances progress), costume (Milan Shahani) and set (Teresa Przybyski).
Many commentators find similarities with Kalidasa’s and Shakespeare’s characterizations and dramatic balance. A noble king (performed with growing confidence by Sanjay Talwar) falls instantly in love with ashram dweller, Shakuntala (Anti Majumdar brings Hari Krishnan’s deft choreography to beautiful life, notably in her solo turns). But the honourable ruler is also the victim of a vengeful curse, driving him nearer to madness as his heart and memory battle his soul. His fool (and gaily costumed “friend”—pearls and earrings draped over a bare torso) gets most of the laughs but doesn’t drop as many gems of wisdom as those created by the Bard. Frank Cox-O’Connell does yeoman’s service in that role (and several others including a quivering deer and the explosive drummer in the closing scenes), replete with a groin grab and much copulative innuendo. Can’t get more universal than that. The few moments of girl-plays-boy cross-dressing frequently found its opposite during Shakespeare’s day.
Shakuntala’s constant companions (Pragna Desai, Carrie-Lynn Neales) might well be advised to turn their giddy-girls routines down a notch—they’re at risk of slipping into parody rather than personification of the unbounded joy in being best friends.
On the parental front, David Collins is an engaging father figure (and most able charioteer in the best Monty Python and the Holy Grail tradition), while Melee Hutton goes about her motherly chores with dignity and just the right touch of haughtiness.
Indeed, the role of women is frequently in the subtext. Systemic subservience (unquestioning loyalty to their husbands—no matter how many wives they may have) and exclusion from inheritance are issues that are telling in their just-so one-sidedness. Subliminally adding to the notion of male domination is Przybyski’s quintet of phallic-like columns that are skilfully positioned to underscore the change of location or venue (brilliant is the “real life” portrait of the abandoned then—using the well-loved conceit of the power of a ring—reclaimed heroine).
Seen in 2009, India’s epic tale of love found, discarded and rekindled resonates on many fronts—particularly family values; though perhaps now, not in quite the manner the playwright intended. Unquestionably, it’s a journey well worth taking. JWR