The goddess Kali is a complicated figure. She can be portrayed as a bloody-handed destroyer massacring armies and dancing on her husband’s chest. She can represent change and the force of time. She can be a wellspring of strength and creativity, or an aspect of the devoted mother-goddess Parvati. There is a fluidity to her character in common with the most ancient conceptions of the universe, where primordial forces exist in a constant state of flux.
Part holy creation myth, part love story, and part fantastical gods-versus-demons showdown, Kali is a night of epic, energetic storytelling presented by the Soho Theatre’s resident spoken word collective Crick Crack Club.
Storyteller Emily Hennessey is an enthralling performer, infusing her tale with warmth and playfulness. Having travelled widely around India, her passion for the subcontinent’s history and culture is obvious. She sings melodiously in Hindi, and there are flashes of traditional Kathakali in the brief dances and dramatic postures she slips into throughout her performance. Embodying the eponymous goddess, she dances with eyes wide and tongue lolling, arms raised and feet stamping to the jingling of ankle bells, a devotional statue come to life.
Multi-instrumentalist Sheema Mukherjee, best known for her contributions to world-fusion music outfit Transglobal Underground, provides a live score which goes well beyond a mere accompaniment. Her virtuosic sitar playing creates a resonant soundscape, but she sets the instrument aside in the story’s more reflective passages in favour of rhythmic handclaps and lyrical chants.
The production has had a long development, which shows in the fabulous precision and near-perfect synchronisation between the two artists. At no point does Hennessey have to strain her voice to be heard, and Mukherjee’s music never fades into the background. Instead, words and melody feel equally integral, equally involved in communicating the story, flowing together like two mingling rivers.
Hennessey’s composition evokes a vivid and deeply sensual world, redolent with details of perfumed meadows, oceans of milk, dappling sunlight, and billowing snow. Maybe it’s the humid environment of a small, full house after a hot day, or maybe it’s the faint perfume of burning incense, but there is a tangible magic in the air.
The story itself comes straight out of the complex, colourful melange of Hindu mythology – with a few contemporary tricks added to the telling. Hennessey knows just where to slip in a modernism or a daft joke, and treats the mythic subjects of her tale with the right mix of reverence and mischief. At one point, a god comments on his brother’s habit of disguising himself as various people and animals, telling him that the fact that he remains bright blue in whatever form he takes is ‘a bit of a giveaway.’
Other times, Hennessey calls on the audience for suggestions. Admittedly, these suggestions are for synonyms for orgasm, which leads to a sort of verbal re-enactment of that scene from the Naked Gun, with the dams bursting and the rockets launching into orbit.
There’s a sense of ritual running through the entire performance, established at the outset by Crick Crack organiser Ben Haggarty’s exuberant call and response introduction, and underpinned by the mantra-like quality of interwoven voice and music.
At the interval, we’re offered cut flowers, and invited at the show’s end to leave them at a small shrine by the door. There, your choice of idols promises a blessing for either a new beginning (via Ganesha) or empowerment (from Kali herself).
These spirits seem like fitting onlookers, watching over a joyfully told tale of transformations, transcendence and rebirth.
Kali was presented by Crick Crack Club. Click here for more details.