Review: Hayavadana

by Lynn on May 26, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Soulpepper Theatre in association with Why Not Theatre,

Part of  Around the World in 80 Plays.

Streaming until June 30, 2021

Written by Girish Karnad

Directed by Miriam Fernandes

Sound designer, Debashis Sinha

Cast: Nadine Bhabha

Sehar Bhojani

Sharada Eswar

Sarena Parmar

Ellora Patnaik

Nadeem Phillip

Anand Rajaram

Navtej Sandhu

Ravi Jain

The inclusion of Hayavadana (Horseface) by Girish Karnad takes us to India in Soulpepper Theater Company’s series Around the World in 80 Plays. The play was first done in India in 1972.

A group of actors are preparing to rehearse a play. An actor rushes into the rehearsal room with an incredible story. On her way to the rehearsal, she heard a male voice addressing her firmly. She didn’t see anyone but horseface on a man’s body. The horseface, Hayavadana by name,   was the one speaking. The story was that a young woman was supposed to marry a man of her family’s choosing and when the man arrived, on a majestic horse, she fell in love with the horse. Love has transformative powers is one theme of this play.

The play being rehearsed also carries on this theme of transformative identity: who are we really; who is our real self; what is happiness; what is friendship, loyalty, love? Two men are the best of friends though they are so different. Devadatta (Ravi Jain) is an intellectual, a poet, sensitive, and from a privileged family. Kapila (Anand Rajaram) is a gauche, fun-loving, energetic, athletic man who grabs at life and would do anything for his friend. Devadatta has seen a beautiful, young woman but can’t remember her address on the street where she lives and sends Kapila to find out. He is successful (there is all manner of Indian tradition of addressing the woman and finding out her name, that is fascinating). Her name is Padmini (Nadine Bhabha) and she is fascinated about who is enquiring about her and why. The result is that she marries Devadatta. But because Kapila is always there, the three lives become intertwined. Matters become intense. Identities become muddled (I’m not giving away any spoilers here and there are plenty). A question is: “Who are we really?” “What is our identity-our head or our body?”

Director Miriam Fernandes has assembled an ensemble of terrific actors of South Asian decent lead by Ravi Jain, who plays the confident, sensitive Devadatta, Anand Rajaram as the emotional, rousing Kapila and Nadine Bhabha as Padmini who is the most prescient of the three, smart, perceptive and wise. Fernandes has directed these gifted actors to realize the emotion, confliction, confusion and startling details of what is going on in their world. The always inventive Debashis Sinha has provided a soundscape of Indian music, instrumentation and sound that puts us in that world.

Girish Karnad’s writing is vivid, thoughtful and cheeky. He has a sly joke about theatre critics that I’m sure everybody will cite and well they should. At the end there is a speech that is applicable anywhere. The narrator says this: “…come now, it’s time we prayed and thanked the Lord, having ensured the completion and success of our play. Grant us, oh Lord, good rains, good crop, prosperity in poetry, science, industry and other affairs. Give the rulers of our country success in all endeavors and along with it, a little bit of sense.” (‘ahmen’—that’s just me speaking.)  

Hayavadana is both mystic and mythic, epic and intimate. It cites Indian folklore, ‘gods’, traditions, beliefs and philosophy. Such epic works as Shakuntalā by Kālidāsa are referenced for context by ‘ordinary’ characters steeped in that literature and world. For many familiar with Western world literature Hayavadana might appear ‘exotic’ because its references and themes are so different from our own dramatic literature. To describe the play in ‘western terms’ as ‘fantastical’ is to do the play a disservice by trying to force it into our own means of interpretation, rather than taking it on its own terms as part of Indian dramatic literature.    

The story is complicated and dense. Reference names with which we are not generally familiar fly through the air. All this can overwhelm the listener. Don’t let it. Listen, engage, enjoy, embrace this dazzling play.  

Streams on the Soulpepper website until June 30, 2021:

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