Theatre: Passage to India

Shakuntala Gate Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
The Gate Theatre has become renowned for producing little-known works of well-known western writers. Now it has turned East to perform a similar service. Taken from the Mahabharata by the fifth-century Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, Shakuntala is just another story of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy rejects girl. Except that the boy in question is the King of the Earth, while his bride to be, Shakuntala, is the daughter of a Hindu deity. The play receives its British premiere here.

It is a work in which the boundaries between the divine and the domestic continually blur. The gods are formidable, but unafraid to interfere in the smallest affairs of humans when it suits them, issuing a curse or stealing a person away in a flash of lightning. And the play boasts the same kind of tricky-to-stage magic realism found in Shakespeare's late romances (the plot turns upon a ring discovered in the belly of a carp). It makes tall demands on director, cast and translator because its tone is so variable: intimate one moment, epic the next.

As we've come to expect from the Gate, the production is elegant. Rosa Maggiora's sandstone-coloured set is nicely suggestive of heat and dust, and the addition of a few brass plates in the floor and the walls turns it into a palace. Indhu Rubasingham's production sets out at a blistering, almost reckless pace (names aren't clear, words get lost) but it runs out of steam. After the thunderous first entrance of Duhshanta, there is something rather half-hearted about the approach to the play's more spectacular or gaudy elements. The battle against demons that Duhshanta fights and his visit to the Lord of the Immortals is an under-staged affair, not helped by a puttering smoke-machine. Despite a programme note that stresses their importance in Sanskrit, drama, music and dancing scarcely feature.

The adaptation is by Peter Oswald, who provided the translation for the National Theatre's Fair Women at a Game of Poem Cards last year, and it often finds the humour in the story. "If she's an ascetic, you can't get excited about her," the clownish servant Madhavya (a well-judged performance by Gareth Corke) advises Duhshanta. "I should take her quick," the king concludes, "before some religious maniac who never washes his hair leaps on her."

It's at the more informal moments like this that Silas Carson's Duhshanta is at his best, responding to events with the timing of the straight guy in a comedy double-act. As a rule of thumb, though, the more kingly Carson has to be, the less convincing he is. His regal disdain comes over as unregal petulance, and it's difficult (although this is hardly the actor's fault) to believe that the ruler of the world is such a beanpole. He and Lesley McGuire's Shakuntala make an awkward couple. More worried adolescent than demi-goddess, she never quite convinces as the object of a grand passion.

Occasionally, the text yields a line of elegant, formal beauty: "We are a shadow and a tree, under a sun forever setting". More often than not, however, the play judders to a halt to accommodate its most "poetic" passages. I found myself longing for the verse of a Ranjit Bolt or an Anthony Burgess, capable of switching from tart comedy to lyric earnestness in the twinkle of a couplet, and without dropping the pace.

To 8 March. Booking: 0171-229 5387