Theatre review: Nagamandala contains every element one desires in a stage production

Subin Subaiah (top), Daisy Irani (left) and Sharda Harrison (right) in a publicity image for Nagamandala. -- PHOTO: HUM THEATRE
Subin Subaiah (top), Daisy Irani (left) and Sharda Harrison (right) in a publicity image for Nagamandala. -- PHOTO: HUM THEATRE

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Friday

One seldom encounters a play as nourishing as HuM Theatre's Nagamandala. In its 90 minutes, it contains every element of theatre one might desire: comedy, tragedy, drama, romance and mystery, plus live music and visual spectacle to thrill the senses.

The tale centres on the young bride Rani (Sharda Harrison). Her husband, the neglectful Motabhai (Subin Subaiah), keeps her locked up in a house in the woods. Desperate to win his affections, she considers using a love potion, but inadvertently feeds it to a cobra. The lovestruck snake, magically disguised as her husband, then courts her at night.

A plot like this might belong to a children's pantomime or a traditional folk performance. But, Nagamandala is a work of modern drama, created in 1988 by the famed Indian playwright Girish Karnad. It thus possesses a level of maturity and complexity that belies its fantastic premise.

Much of this is evident in the character development of Rani. She enters the story as a frightened girl, telling herself escapist fairy tales. Gradually, she evolves into a strong-willed heroine, confronting her cobra-lover and the village elders, stridently claiming her rights as a woman and a wife.

Harrison plays this part magnificently, drawing on her physical theatre skills to mime both her frantic preparations for her husband's lunch as well as her impassioned handling of the cobra in its animal form. Subaiah complements her, switching seamlessly between his two roles: the tyrannical husband and the tender snake.

The life of the party, however, is Andhadiba (Daisy Irani), the blind old busybody who takes pity on Rani. She delivers deliciously slapstick humour whenever her son trundles her in on his wheelbarrow, her earthiness keeping the myth rooted in lived experience. Audiences roar as she remarks of an encounter with a holy man, "What use are blessings in this day and age?"

Irani deserves further praise as the director of this production. She strikes a fine balance. The play's mythic qualities shine through in its bright costumes and the life-size banyan tree on stage, but her overall aesthetic is minimalist: the house is just a latched door, and props are few, enhancing the intimacy of the black box space.

Perhaps her best decision, though, was to select this very script, and to adapt it so well. This reviewer would be delighted if Nagamandala were restaged, for it does not simply entertain. It satisfies the soul, reminding us of all theatre can be.

Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio
MRT: City Hall/ Esplanade
When: Today, 8pm, tomorrow, 3 & 8pm, Sun, 3pm
Admission: $28 from Sistic

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