David Farr has plenty of experience when it comes to staging epic stories. He’s already tackled The Odyssey with considerable success, which boded well for his new production of this Indian grand narrative.
The Ramayana tells the story of Rama and his bride Sita. After being exiled to the forest for 14 years, Rama’s wife is kidnapped by the ten headed demon Ravana and whisked away to opulent Lanka. It is only with the help of a monkey army that he manages to regain his wife, but even then he doubts her fidelity and forces her to endure a trial by fire.
Farr employs his now familiar formula of puppetry, dance and music, but where these elements worked so well in The Odyssey, here they fail to inject the necessary spark into the material. There was no set piece akin to the former production’s fantastic Cyclops scene; instead the play ends up relying too much on static storytelling, with certain episodes crying out for a greater degree of visual flair.
Not that this was totally absent. Ti Green’s set, composed of bamboo-like poles up which the cast were frequently required to clamber, is really quite striking and there’s an entertaining moment when Hanuman, the monkey king, used the first few rows of the audience as a substitute for the ocean he was crossing. The ten tiny heads of Ravana were very also nicely done. But more often then not the actors were backed up by the pretty glittery set and little else, focusing the audience’s attention on the language of the play.
This was not always to the production’s benefit as Farr’s adaptation of the text employs an odd mix of tones. Some parts of the dialogue have been given a poetic flourish while other passages are far more casual and contemporary (this is particularly true of the insults traded by the monkeys). This juxtaposition of styles is rather jarring and the different approaches don’t ever really knit together properly. Pacing is an issue too, with some scenes in the first half rather plodding. Things improve considerably after the interval; the piece feels much tighter and more adventurous. It is in this half that all the most memorable and entertaining scenes take place.
As Rama and Sita, Paul Sharma and Vanessa Ackerman, were adequate but nothing more. Theirs was meant to be an amazing, powerful love story, but they both were better at expressing torment than passion. Richard Simons’ cheeky monkey was a more interesting performance, funny and engaging. And I’m still not sure whether Eva Magyar’s Ravana will stay in my memory for more than just her distinctive accent. The driving percussive score, composed by Shri and played onstage by a musician perched regally amid the bamboo, went a long way to paper over the wonkier elements of the production.
Farr on form can be a force to be reckoned with and in his hands the Lyric is one of the most exciting venues in London, but this was a distinctly pedestrian effort, imaginative in parts but in the end a bit of a let down.