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The Recognition of Sakuntala

Kalidasa, translated by Will Johnson
Community 20 & Grit Productions
Union Theatre, Southwark
(2009)

Written by a Sanskrit poet of the fourth century or some time earlier - some scholars place him as early as the first century BC - this is one of the great classics of Hindu literature. It tells a story of the parents of King Bharata, whose descendants, the Kauravas and Pandavas, fought the bloody wars which form the subject of the Mahabharata.

It has been known in English since the end of the eighteenth century and is said to have influenced Goethe in writing his Faust. A Parsee company performed it at the Gaiety Theatre in London towards the end of the nineteenth century and, a few years later in 1899 ,William Poel staged a production in the Botanical Gardens in Regents Park, but this is this first professional production for many years and we must thank the producers for an opportunity to see a revered Indian classic. Shakespeare is certainly more often performed in India than this millennium-earlier Indian dramatist is in Britain. In recent years there seems to have been a revival of interest in ancient Greek drama, with a number of high profile productions: is the time ripe for us to experience more classic work from other cultures that now form part of British society?

The play is the story of Sakuntala, the daughter of a nymph who has been brought up by a sage in an ashram, and of philandering King Dusyanta who finds true love with her. After they secretly marry he returns to his palace, giving her a ring to present when she comes to join him. But Sakuntala is so preoccupied with her love that she ignores a powerful and temperamental sage who arrives demanding her attention. In retaliation he curses her and casts a spell that makes the king forget her existence.

Is this 'one of the greatest romantic plays in world literature' as the production's publicity proclaims? It is a charmingly innocent love story that reminds me of Shakespeare's late plays with their happy reconciliations. It is peopled by characters given a very human reality and told in a poetic language that reflects the closeness of man to nature. But in this production its potential is suggested, rather than achieved.

Attractively mounted by designer Nicola Dobrowolski, with stylised use of animal heads to suggest hunted deer and chariot horses and a ritualised danced battle, it has ambitious aims, but its performances lack any unifying physical or vocal assurance. Although there had been several previews, on press night the performers seemed ill adjusted to the space they were in - at one moment almost shouting, at others barely audible or far too fast in their delivery so that the sense, let alone the subtlety of their playing, was often lost. Outside the choreographed material movement was often awkward.

Director Tarek Iskander has worked in this space before and should have been able to give them more help in matching their performances to the venue, to bolster a confidence that seemed sometimes lacking and to curb some grotesque overplaying - to find a style that would draw these performances together. There is a low-life scene for instance which, like similar scenes in Shakespeare, is surely intended to be comic but failed to be. Were there others among the more overbearing characters whom we were supposed to laugh at? Was the man who places the angry curse supposed to be a comic villain? It was certainly a very odd performance but gave the audience no licence to find it funny.

Most of the cast have moments when they seize the material and make something of it; Rob Witcomb's Viusaka, Gabriella Schmidt's Priyamvada, David Palliser's Sarngarava all rise to certain speeches. Dominic Kraemar gives a gentle charm to his hippyish King Dusyanta, but needs to release more energy and not fade out the vital ends of sentences if he is to make a real connection with the audience. Esin Harvey's Sauntala is best when relating to her girlfriends but needs to project more to make the audience fall in love with her. She is not helped by a translation that describes her as having breasts that are 'upturned globes and too swollen to be swaddled by that cloth.' The script follows the self-consciously poetic with colloquialisms such as 'gets my goat.' This may be an accurate translation of the original but does not make it easier for the actors: again it is a matter of finding a style which will accommodate it. Lighting that casts shadows across actors' faces does not help them either. It is much easier to understand what is said when you can see the speaker's face. Sometimes this was due to dappled woodland effects that otherwise were effective but there were occasions when it may simply have been an actor not on their marks, though that doesn't explain why on one occasion the audience was dazzlingly well lit when the actor wasn't!

Perhaps a little further into the run this adventurous production will find its feet and take off. I certainly hope so for it is an enterprise to be commended. It may just needs that extra time in development that tight budgets and tight schedules do not allow.

Runs until 7th February 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton