Kali is the Hindu goddess of empowerment – mother to Ganesh, husband to Shiva. Her life is one of war, of love, and family – a grand, epic story with demons, catastrophe and a whole saga of creation. A tale so massive perhaps, that to even recount it all with any form of success seems like a huge challenge – one confronted by storyteller Emily Hennessey, and sitar player Sheema Mukherjee. The results, it must be said from the off, made for some exciting theatre.
A lot of this came down to the abilities of the performing duo. Hennessey, narrating the story alone for almost 100 minutes, laced the saga of Kali with humor, emotion and excitement, endearing the audience and keeping us captivated throughout. With understated precision she lyrically conjured up the lives and visions of Shiva, of Parvati and the pantheon of gods that surrounded them without missing a single beat, using subtle changes in stance, tone and bearing to switch between different figures with ease.
This was matched by the skills of Kukherjee – her compositions and performances not simply on the sitar but on a variety of other instruments embellishing the performance with a tonal depth and flavour. The music never felt overwrought or understated, but seemed to stride effortlessly alongside the narrative, reacting to events with crescendo or silence whenever necessary.
This was theatre by first principle – stripped back from technology wizardry (there were no lighting changes, or sound cues) and leaving only the rhetorical and musical skills of the performers naked before the spectator. There was a purity to proceedings – a didactic narration that gave the air of collusion and inclusivity. It was exhilarating to see such a performance brought to a central London venue.
If there were issues, it was less about fault and more around circumstance. As fantastic a venue the Soho Upstairs is for championing performances, it felt somewhat stifling at times, as if the performance needed an open space to breath and evoke even greater images. Hemming in the audience on three sides did make the performance feel somewhat static at times – a difficult issue to counter when only one performer had the means of moving freely, but this became less of a problem as the tale progressed and the narrative grew more evocative and physical.
Kali is a wonderful piece of theatre – pure in its ideas and retelling a fantastic story vital for both Hindu and modern culture. Kali’s tale is one of female empowerment, of joyful exuberance in the face of love, and seeing the two performers bring it to life so vividly makes it clear to see why it struck so many chords.
Kali is Presented by the Crick Crack Club. Performance storytelling by Emily Hennessey
Music by Sheema Mukherjee