The Ramayana is a Hindu religious book that centres on a kind of morality tale that starts as a distant cousin of King Lear and then develops into a magic realist love story with echoes of Homer.
In David Farr's modernised version, it divides into two distinct parts. The first half attempts to give a feel for the scale and variety of story-telling in the original and comes over as a cross between The Arabian Nights and Tales from Ovid with episodic stories linked by the mythic tale of Rama and his family.
The pacing is sedate and everything feels under-powered, although there are some comic moments such as the appearance of the cross-dressed coquette, Stephen Ventura's Shurpanhaka, who in defeat loses her nose rather than her head.
After the interval, the side-shows are forgotten as Farr (and the audience) concentrate on the core of the book and the play, to much greater effect.
On the insistence of his wicked second wife, the King chooses the wrong son, Bharata, to rule Ayodhya. He also banishes the natural leader, Rama (played by Paul Sharma) for 14 years. This noble man accepts his fate with good grace and is joined in exile by his beautiful wife Sita (Vanessa Ackerman) and fiery brother Lakshman (Kolade Agboke).
This trio faces a series of perils in Ti Green's spectacular bamboo forest, first put to good use for a dose of sensuous pole dancing but later acting as far more than just a prop.
As they plough on, seduction and trickery divide Sita from the brothers when she is captured by evil, ten-headed Ravana and taken to his harem in Lanka.
Rama despairs but gets help from a whole army of monkeys led by the very funny Richard Simons as Hanuman. This naturally cowardly bunch provides great assistance in locating and rescuing Sita as well as some welcome levity for the audience.
The drama builds to a series of fights with dance and kung fu overtones, allowing the athletic Eva Magyar to show why she was cast as Ravana; before Rama and Sita are reunited and deified.
Once the tangential tales are dispensed with, Ramayana offers a classic story that to many will be new, in entertaining fashion. Shri's music, played from above the stage by talented drummer/percussionist Marc Layton-Bennett, adds atmosphere but a little more urgency would not have gone amiss in this "retelling of the great Indian epic".
Reviewer: Philip Fisher