Vanara

Music by Gianluca Cucchiara, lyrics by Andrew James Whelan, book by Michael Conley, original concept Tony Cucchiara
Giovanna Romagnoli and Gianluca Cucchiara
Hackney Empire

Vanara

In another time and on another earth, two tribes, the Kogallisk and the Pana, live in an uneasy peace brokered by the mystic Oroznah. In this world where humanity barely survives, she now calls them together before the onset of winter for an annual trade ceremony in their world’s last surviving forest which they treat as sacred.

So much we know because Johnnie Fiori’s magisterial Oroznah, Chorus-like, sets the scene. Now she tells the whole gathering that a night that is coming will be endless. The Kogallisk, who are led by a woman, follow the moon and live on a mountain. They have the secret of fire, which will aid their survival, but they refuse to share with the Pana, who follow the sun. But what happens when, during one of their rituals, Mohr, a young man of the Pana, son of their male leader, accidentally touches Ayla, daughter of the Kogallisk queen?

With echoes of the Prometheus story, of Romeo and Juliet (with a happy ending) and even a touch of Rite of Spring, this is a tale of primaeval simplicity imbued with a message about respecting the planet and peaceful co-operation, not just tense co-existence. It is told through its music and movement as much as its dialogue. Its rock opera rhythms give way for a lullaby and some love songs but, though it is a cast of strong singers, lyrics don’t always come over clearly.

Emily Bautista has already starred in Les Miserables and Miss Saigon in the US but as Ayla she is making her London debut with a powerful performance. She’s attractively paired with Jacob Fowler but, while her performance is matched to the Empire’s auditorium, his sensitive Mohr needs more projection.

The waving of arm and legs in Eleesha Drennan’s rituals sometimes goes on too long, but she has choreographed a spectacular fight scene and with co-director Adam Lenson drives the show with an energy that helps counter a tendency to be over-ponderous. Book writer Michel Conley has shown a lively wit in previous work but here there are only two brief (and easily missed) moments of humour in what seems relentlessly serious.

Libby Todd provides a set full of shadows, the forest suggested by a circle of trunks on a revolve that sometimes becomes part of the choreography, and some stunning costumes that are matched by Lisa Farrall’s totemic makeup designs, though the Pana look as though they might be more at home on a mountain than do the Kogallisk.

Vanara is an ambitious undertaking; it has been created internationally with workshops and crowdfunding input and then been held up by the COVID pandemic. It now effectively fills the stage but is thin on actual content and repetitious in what it has to say. Is there meant to be more here? Do these two tribes represent the developed and the undeveloped world? The show is due to tour next year and this brief Hackney run seems like an elaborate try-out. Its sentiments match popular feeling which gives it great potential—and there is time for some readjustment.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton