[Review:] VANARA, Hackney Empire, London.
To generate a powerful emotional response in an audience member, a musical must balance its heartfelt ballads with careful, precise and coherent character profiling and development. It is easy to confuse the powerful emotional feeling invoked within us with the success of the overall musical, as opposed to the talent of the musical’s composers and musicians. It is also easy to be sucked into the emotions communicated in the songs to such a degree that we confuse them with the emotionality and complexity of the characters. In Vanara, we are not offered strong characters or a strong plot; it is the musical compositions that make it minutely worth any attention.
Understanding the above statements, I will elaborate that composer Gianluca Cucchiara has done a wonderful job in composing for Vanara. His music is resonant, articulate and sufficiently dramatic – NB I refer here to the music alone, not lyrics. But songs are certainly relied upon in this musical over any other sensible and credible storytelling techniques, to such a degree that we learn only of character intent and feeling through them alone and not through character interactions or soliloquies, for instance. But despite having such an important function in this musical, the songs themselves are far from perfect. Lyrics (by Andrew James Whelan) are entirely repetitive, unpoetical and bland, overall – though there is a notable increase in lyrical poeticism as the performance goes on. We quickly come to understand, for example, that the two tribes are ‘ready for the trade’ the first six times they repeat this; we do not need to hear it more than this, repeatedly in lieu of more poignant lyrics.
Theme and motif are certainly lacking throughout this performance, so it is easy to leave without a single song stuck in one’s head, despite the same one-liner lyrics being drilled into us for around three minutes straight per song, and with no sense of the performance’s musical identity. However, whilst the sound and feel of the overall library for this musical are not entirely cohesive and well-communicated, I must put this down to the ill-communications within the dramatic text itself as well as its own sheer lack of identity. As disparate as the music sounds overall, each individual composition is wonderfully conceived and performed.
All songs aim, as I have mentioned, to demonstrate the feelings, passions and emotions of the individual. This would be great if we were actually made to care about the characters, but we are not, partly because we have no idea who they actually are, partly because of the incoherencies of the text – e.g. how Mohr (Jacob Fowler) sees Ayla (Emily Bautista) for the first time ever during the trade and yet somehow professes his undying love for her that he seems to have been harbouring for all of his life – and partly also because all sense of plot and character development is entirely substituted for heartfelt solos about everything and nothing. One song about undying love from each of the characters – perhaps even a split-scene duet – would be enough; more than four is simply overkill.
Lyrics and songs simply do not match up with the plot, however rich in mediocre symbolism they may be. ‘How Do I Open His Eyes’, for example…open his eyes to what?! Nothing has happened for her to feel any sense of dissonance in their ‘relationship’, neither have done anything that has proven that the two share an undying love, and yet somehow Ayla is now singing about having known Mohr from childhood: ‘He’ll only see the child that he knew’?! Completely inconsistent and ill-conveyed narrative. So, as lovely as her running into his arms as ‘the air turns into fire and the sky falls down’ sounds, we need to understand why. This is the difference between an impactful and poetical song and one that benefits and progresses the narrative of the book.
And then we have songs like ‘Woman and Man’. Completely unrelated to the rest of the performance and having no effect on later material whatsoever. With its strangely conservative and crude content, I can only imagine that the creatives wanted to garner wider public interest and so included elements of what they believed to be a progressive feminist narrative but which was actually very divisive and stunting. The only thing that this song does, perhaps, is establish a sense of social codes and propriety in a tribe assumed to be ‘animalistic’ and ‘uncivilised’, but to what avail? We learn nothing else about them, and this lack of intellect or this animalism, as I will elaborate below, were never concretised or fully communicated to begin with in order to make this subversion worthwhile.
A similar comment can be made about the creatives’ understanding of their female lead, Ayla, communicated in their synopsis: 'On another earth, in another time, where nature is revered and life is full of dangers, two tribes are locked in an age-old battle. One has the secret of fire, the other wants it. One young woman must decide: protect the life she knows or burn it down.' Here, it is implied that Ayla is a rebellious, adventurous and strong female protagonist whose decisions and actions will completely alter the direction of the story. This is fascinating to me, considering that all she does throughout the text is moan about the stubbornness of her parents, dream for a better life, and profess her passionate love for Mohr who will eventually come to save the day. In fact, it is even Mohr who sets the forest on fire and ‘burns it all down’, not her. Again, a complete misuse and misappropriation of a feminist narrative from creatives who clearly have no understanding of [especially contemporary] feminist ideology or of the true female experience, using its elements only to fill more seats.
It is my methodology to watch a performance without any pre-existing knowledge acquired from external sources, understanding that a performance should ‘speak for itself’. After the performance, when I read this synopsis, I was stunned to learn that this story takes place ‘on another planet’. This is a simply ridiculous attempt to attract larger audiences. There is no indication whatsoever that the action takes place on a different planet, and this description is ludicrous to me. Clearly, this performance is a steppingstone, something to fill the creative’s portfolios and to showcase the ‘talents’ of the artists involved. At least, I should hope that this is the case, given the creatives’ sheer inability to create a coherent, articulate and powerful performance.
The book shares strikingly conspicuous and sterile similarities with Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, and this would not be a problem if it managed to establish its own identity, to incorporate the material of the pre-existing text into its own, but it does not. I am afraid that additional items, like the forest and the ability to ‘call upon’ fire, are not enough to sufficiently distinguish this eventless text from its Shakespearean predecessor.
This performance’s biggest issue is, as I have already implied, that it favours the dramatic, climactic and passionate over the fruitful, coherent and logical. The plot, despite being so obviously influenced by [nay a theft of] the play Romeo and Juliet, has no sense of gradual progression. Random and dramatic events occur, such as Lordu’s (Chris George) death or Caladar’s (Shem Omari James) random revelation that he intends to ‘get Mohr out of the way’, so to speak, and to be the leader of his tribe, but these events are terribly conceived and overdramatic. We have no idea who Lordu or Caladar are – we only see them on stage twice – so why should we be in any way shocked and fearful when one dies and when the other reveals his true intents, now calling himself 'Death'. Bizarre. These are tertiary characters that seem to come out of nowhere, rising from the woodwork only to provide the text with drama and suspense when creatives could not think of any other profound or relevant way of doing so.
Whilst suffering from these 'climactic' events that remain so inopportunely dramatised that they have no effect whatsoever, this text also suffers from multiple inconsistencies. For example, the entire premise is [apparently! This is hugely understated in the narrative] that one tribe has the ability to produce fire that the other supposedly desires, and yet when Ayla first 'summons' fire in front of Mohr, he asks, "What sorcery is this?" And she has to explain to him that this is fire, despite him just having asked her to produce it. Completely illogical text.
As for acting, naturalism is incredibly lacking. Sense of chemistry is also terribly inadequate, especially between the main lovers, but it is also understated between the principal figurehead couples of each tribe. When it comes to singing, I must, unfortunately, state that all performers have a mediocre voice, overall, but do redeem themselves at some point throughout the musical. Perhaps a directorial issue, performers seem to be unable to tailor their singing style to that of the text, with styles ranging from traditional rock ‘n’ roll to soul. I would have imagined that each tribe would have its own singing style, if there would be any discrepancies in this at all; this is not the case. Diction is simply terrible, particularly with songs performed by the entire ensemble.
The true shining light of this performance is Kayleigh McKnight (playing Sindah). McKnight has an incredible vocal range and performs with conviction, vitality and vigour. She is transformative and emotive and demonstrates a great awareness of dynamic physicality and naturalism. Notably, her expressivity becomes somewhat limited over time, but I believe that this is due to the unidimensionality of her character, who always seems to be mourning and sorrowful, as opposed to her capacity as a performer. All other performers, I must say, are negligible, and this is most disappointing when we consider the Rafiki-like character of Oroznah, played by Johnnie Fiori. It was most disappointing for me to observe that Fiori had more stage presence and personality in her cocky and energised bowing at the end of the performance than she did when in character during the show.
On to movement. I find it strange that during the overture, Pana ensemble members perform animalistic movements, moving predatorily, remaining close to the ground, whilst those of the Kogallisk remain fluid, controlled, well-postured, humanised. So far, these are well distinguished, if plainly. The reason I find this so strange, though, is that, despite the latter consistently describing the former as ‘uncivilised animals’, this troglodytic animalism vs humanised poise disappears as soon as the overture ends and the performance begins. After this, all sense of poise and stature disappears, and we are stuck with a rather bog-standard physicality from all cast members. Did they give up? Or was this deliberate? Completely inconsistent, and one of many reasons that I find the two tribes to be completely lacking in individual identity.
Choreography (by Eleesha Drennan) is incredibly lacking and, again, repetitive. Drennan fails to develop a clear and legible aesthetic, with movements ranging from jetés and high-kicks to stylised movement to crude and sharp dance. As for the performers of these movements, there is a huge range in ability, some demonstrating good form and flexibility and ability to move in synchronisation with other ensemble members and in time with the music, and others not. I should note here that it is rather Drennan’s fault for choreographing movements without tailoring them to the capacities of the specific performers involved, with most performers struggling to demonstrate good force and conviction behind their movements.
Stage fighting was ridiculously artificial, with agents retaining far too much distance between one another in action, so as to diminish credibility, and far too repetitive, yet again. In fact, this solicited a response I heard from an audience member that had rather read my mind, “That fighting was laughable”. It also seems that it could not be decided whether the performers were required to fight or to dance; the action was inconsistent in this manner.
Finally, design. Stage design is very simple but facilitative, and the revolving stage is a wonderful element that adds dynamism and visual intrigue. I find the apron problematic, however. This performance offers no other element that encroaches on the audience’s space; the apron is thus far too confrontational and needless. Costume is shambolic. The colours brown and blue are not enough to differentiate the two tribes. Upon noticing that some tribe members wore feathers and others fur, I thought ‘creatures of the sky’ vs ‘creatures of the land’ was a nice way to distinguish them, but I soon realised that this was not the case, either. The most illusion-destroying of costume elements, however, are the shoes, some of which even have zips. I would recommend all shoes resemble Glenn Carter's. As for tech, lighting design was satisfactory, but sound operation was simply terrible. Microphones are hardly ever turned on in time, meaning that we often hear either nothing when performers are speaking and singing or the entirety of performers' conversations as they leave the stage and enter the wings.
A few final notes. Firstly, I would urge certain ensemble members to refrain from giving the audience unnecessary eye contact where such audience interaction/confrontation is not provided by any other aspect of the performance. Secondly, when you are leaving the stage, REMAIN IN CHARACTER until you are completely out of sight. This was far too frequent an issue. When running on stage, start running from deep into the wings; otherwise, it is clear that characters have not been running for ages across a great distance but have simply just started and are finishing a mere few metres away from their starting point. Lastly, I would urge creatives not to have loud chats amongst each other during the performance at the back of the stalls. Completely unprofessional and utterly disrespectful not only to the cast bringing your work to life but to the audience members who are paying to see it.