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‘Mahabharata’ – new theatre version of stirring ancient epic comes to Europe for the first time…

‘Mahabharata’ –  new theatre version of stirring ancient epic comes to  Europe for the first time…

Described as “a once in a generation theatrical experience”, one of the lead actors tells us about this new production which is on a limited London theatre run from tomorrow…

IT IS ONE OF THE oldest and best-known stories to millions of Indians and is about an epic battle that is believed to have actually taken place many centuries ago.

The Mahabharata’ is an ancient Indian epic tale and essentially tells the story of two warring clans – the Pandavas and the Kaurava – and an epic battle.

It is regarded as the longest poem of its type and its earliest author was understood to be the sage Vyasa.

Neil D’Souza as Krishna, centre background

Over time it has changed and there are many different versions of ‘The Mahabharata’.

It has now been adapted for the contemporary theatre by theatremaker and writer Canadian Ravi Jain and comes to The Barbican in London for the first time tomorrow (October 1), having premiered in Canada at an arts festival earlier this year.

British actor Neil D’Souza plays the part of Krishna in this ‘Mahabharata’ and told how it came about and how he came to be in this production, which was still playing in Toronto when we spoke to him recently.

“Ravi Jain has been working on this for about six, seven years and been developing it over that time,” explained D’Souza. “Ravi works in a very intuitive way, and we Zoomed and he offered me the role.”

Many people will have come across the late and great Peter Brook version of ‘The Mahabharata’ which is very long and was performed mostly by an international cast with only one South Asian/Indian actor-performer its original form.


This is rather different in that almost everyone in this production is of South Asian descent, and while parts of it are regarded as sacred for Hindus, its message and story are universal and all encompassing.

D’ Souza said you don’t really need to know too much or anything about the original story – or its many forms.

Indian TV had a long running series on the epic and it was one of the most avidly followed TV series of all time.

“I’ve seen that,” said D’Souza. “I travelled around India extensively and my family are from Bombay and I’m very familiar with the story – but I’ve still learned a lot from this production.”

D’Souza said that Krishna is something of an enigma – in traditional Hindu iconography he is wise, loving, compassionate, generous and sometimes even a little naughty and mischievous – especially when he was a child growing up.

“I find him fascinating,” revealed D’Souza. “There’s the child part of Krishna and then there’s statesman.

Jay Emmanuel as Shiva with the cast of ‘Mahabharata‘ (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

“He’s connected existentially to bigger questions of the universe while also being (an active player) in this story. He is an amazing character and fascinating to play as an actor. I love playing him.”’

Unlike Brook’s version, this significantly includes ‘The Bhagavad Gita’ – which is regarded as sacred for Hindus but has a message that remains universal.

“I think he was worried about the fight scenes and that was nine hours long and epic – this is also epic but in a different way and more digestible,” pointed out D’Souza.

The play has music and interestingly, The Gita section is a bit like opera according to the accounts from Canada. And Jain also uses mixed media to form part of the storytelling – deploying film and screens.

D’Souza pointed out that just as the original ‘Mahabharata’ is an epic tale with a huge number of plots, and sub-plots, it’s easier to understand it as a big picture story.

Essentially, it is about power and the moral choices one inevitably has to make in life.

“In a sense, it’s a bit like ‘Game of Thrones,” D’Souza posited. “There are many characters and yet there is narrative which ends up flowing all through these characters and situations.”

There are many shades of characters and even gods can be slightly flawed.

“That’s the interesting thing about it, no one is wholly good or wholly bad. “This is a story which has lasted four thousand years. And it’s probably the foundational story of the Indian subcontinent.”


The dialogue and text of this play are adapted from the late English poet Carole Satyamurti’s ‘Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling’ by Jain and Miriam Fernandes with the original concept developed with Jenny Koons.

There is Indian classical dance and music and there is an international cast and is produced by Jain’s Why Not Theatre and supported by the UK-based Bagri Foundation.

The long and full version of this play which is about five hours in total will play on the opening night on Sunday (October 1) and again on Friday (October 6) and Saturday (October 7) with the first performance and Part I beginning at 3.30pm and the second half, Part 2 at 8.15pm.

These are split by ‘Khana & Kahani’ which translate loosely as food and stories – there is an opportunity to share thoughts with your fellow audience over a meal and then return for Part II. There is more detail on the Barbican page (see link below).

Different parts play on different evenings in the week until Friday – check listings below.

All pictures taken from Shaw Festival- February 2023 (Canada) ©DavidCooper – full captions for all pictures not available at the time of going to press


Mahabharata – from Sunday October 1-7 – tomorrow 3.30pm, Barbican Theatre, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS.

Part 1 – 2 hours and 20 minutes (with an interval)
Part II – 2 hours and 10 mins (with an interval)

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture