Sarai is a recognisably age old tale. Our protagonist Sarai (Karlina Grace-Paṣeda) longs for a son, and is given an ever-echoing prophecy that promises that and more: “remove yourself from your Father’s house to a land that I’ll show you, and I will give you a child and make you a great nation”. The tightness of prophecies never seems to allow room for overriding doubt or the turmoil and horror that the prophet will face in obtaining its reward. As with all of these prophecies, the belief in it sparks a determination within the character to fulfil it, and fulfilling it reveals that the prophecy itself comes from within. In Sarai’s case, she bears witness to extreme poverty and undignified death endured by mankind, as well as the lavish selfishness that appears on the other side. Classically, the heroine sets about a mission, endures hardship, remains strong and succeeds. Atypically, Sarai is presented as a multi-sensory, multifaceted production, in which elements of dance and dialogue are fused together and laid on top of a distinctive musical score.
The result is the construction of an atmosphere. The audience are made to feel as though they are within something as apposed to merely spectating it. Sarai is a world, intricately drawing upon multiple instruments, flawless design and movement to create one voice. The downside of this approach is that not all the elements maintain the same standard. In Sarai there is a clear order to the standard: the music steals the show without question. Under the expert musical direction of Bryon Wallen, musicians surround the stage beating intrigue into the action and providing a pulse to the narrative. Second up is the movement. Grace-Paṣeda Moves with complete control and enviable strength as her body undergoes everything from peacocking, to saving, to giving birth. Her dancing is almost a character in itself, driving Sarai forward, through locations and into situations and fights she faces. The main element that suffers is that of speech – arguably, a pretty important element for theatregoers at a play. The writing is heavy and it weighs down upon the lighter music and movement. Grace-Paṣeda loses her lines in places, stunting the narrative, and more tenuously, breathlessly gropes her way through the language, losing rhythm and the sense of the lines along the way. Her emotional integrity is so strong but the talk is weak.
There is so much beauty in Sarai. The story is empowering, the music masterful and the movement stunning. But in the basic and traditional telling of the story, which may not be as sparkly but is necessary, the plot is lost somewhere along the line.
Sarai is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 7 November. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo: Sarah Hickson.