Tuesday, November 29

Vanara — Hackney Empire

Vanara has all the ingredients to make for an epic musical: an ancient legend, a talented cast, a live orchestra, beautiful costumes, and a community of eager eyes awaiting its release. The show had its world premiere this weekend at the Hackney Empire, a fitting venue for the grandeur the story promises. Vanara is the story of two tribes: the Kogallisk, servants of the moon, and the Pana, servants of the sun. The Kogallisk live on a mountain and hone the power of fire, a secret power which they must protect from the thieving Panas, who according to legend can steal a Kogallisk’s inner fire by looking them straight in the eyes. The Panas do not have access to this fire, and so must hunt and trade to remain alive. What then ensues is a battle between the two tribes, with two star-crossed lovers at the centre of the narrative. Ayla, heir to the Kogallisk throne, and Mohr, heir to the Pana throne, lock eyes at the annual trade ceremony. They fall in love. This starts a war.

The story is belted out in emotional ballads and painted in rich dance choreography. A live orchestra is suspended above the earthy set, which immediately immerses us in the natural, woody surroundings of the tribes’ forest. Vanara has almost everything it needs to be a fantastic show, but it lacks a foundational element of theatre-making: story. The script falls flat at several points of this highly ambitious tale. It strings together several overused cliches: a forbidden romance, an age-old feud, a forced arranged marriage, and a wise sage to tie it all together. This could all have been brought to life if the characters were given some nuance, or the language a bit of texture. Instead, the dialogue resorts to hackneyed sayings about love, life, and womanhood which—in moments—border on regressive. One of the song sequences attempts to make light of the gender power dynamic within the tribes, but the clumsy number felt like it did more to reinforce heteronormative, oppressive ideas of the patriarchy.

Vanara has a lot of potential. I was moved by the talent of the actor’s bodies in dance and their voices in song. The premise was engulfing and held a lot of promise in addressing some of our current chaos: climate change, polarizing politics, and a disconnect to the natural world; however, the play did little to resonate with these ideas. I, like many others, was very excited to see this show and I hope that it continues to develop into all that it promises. The actors filled the space with palpable, raw talent, so I have no doubt they would do justice to a version of Vanara that is further refined. https://hackneyempire.co.uk/whats-on/vanara/

Reviewer: Pooja Sivaraman

Reviewed: 25th October 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★