It is an epic story investigating love, identity, adulthood and dark emotions. For thousands of years, the Indian poet Valmiki's Ramayana - 24,000 couplets on the journey of Rama - has been told and retold, while influencing generations along the way. It is often referred to as the first poem in Sanskrit, the classical language of Hinduism, and was written in the fourth century BC.
This week, Ramayana will be staged by New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) students as the establishment's first in-house theatre production, led by its director of theatre Ruben Polendo. The event is presented by the NYUAD Institute and the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), in association with the New York and Abu Dhabi-based Theater Mitu (founded by Polendo).
"It's a very intense, heartbreaking and beautiful poem," said Polendo, who wrote the adaptation. "I wanted something epic that called for large student collaboration. The core of the story is love, letting go, identity - things we all struggle with."
When Polendo, from Mexico, first encountered the narrative almost 17 years ago, when it was told to him over a period of many months, it left a lasting effect.
The story follows the life of Rama, who is heir to the throne of his father the king of Ayodhya. However, one of his father's three wives devises a scheme that compels the king to banish Rama, leaving the succession clear for her own son.
Rama, who lives his whole life by the rules of dharma, obeys his father and spends years in exile with his wife Sita. When his half-brother learns the truth, he goes in search of Rama to persuade him to return. Rama refuses, so the brother pledges to hold his place only until he claims his rightful title. Disaster strikes when Sita is abducted and Rama embarks on a rescue mission.
"I was surprised that it was not as widely known as other iconic poems. I started adapting it 10 years ago and through my theatre company, we spent time researching its many variations in Bali, Nepal, Thailand and India," said Polendo.
Theater Mitu incorporates international styles in classic and original productions. Ramayana will include shadow puppetry, masks, ritualised movement, transcultural drumming and a live music score. The cast and crew comprises 19 student actors and 25 apprentices.
Last year, the company brought Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to the UAE, as well as Chaos, inspired by the work of the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello.
"I continue to be surprised by the interest in the local arts scene. I see that whenever there is artistic activity, people have a craving for it, which I find very moving," said Polendo.
Ramayana, he said, was also one that would fuel the imagination. "It's a great piece of literature with a mythological scope. I know we'll walk away incredibly proud."
He added: "The students had conversations about the poem that were cosmopolitan because some grew up with it, some encountered it and for others it was new."
For first-time assistant director Alyazia Al Shaibani from Abu Dhabi, it is both a sad and beautiful story.
"We've had run-throughs which I discuss with Ruben and take notes. It's interesting to see it take shape," said the 19-year-old second-year student.
What makes Ramayana touching is its human element. "It's amazing that it's thousands of years old, which only highlights the familiarities in human nature," she said. "For example, love is hard to explain but has existed since the beginning of mankind."
For Emily Eagen, who plays Queen Kaushalaya, Rama's mother, the experience has made her think about her own motivation in theatre.
"My character is so interesting and strong, she is very much the mother figure and as one of three wives, she is the primary wife," said the 20-year-old American student. "Family is important to her and when Rama is banished, she experiences crisis after crisis but stays calm."
Working with Polendo, his company and the other students has proved invaluable, she said, allowing for a "relatable" production.
"Sometimes in love, we all go through feelings of doubt and jealousy, therefore struggle to experience love in its truest form," said Eagan.
With a background in science, Polendo was always interested in understanding human nature and its contradictions.
"I believe theatre does the same through an artistic landscape," he said. "My medium is to create a memory and I believe this piece does that."
• Performances start at 8pm tomorrow, Friday and Saturday at Manarat Al Saadiyat, with an additional matinée at 1pm on Saturday. Between the matinée and evening performances on Saturday, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) will host a panel discussion with Ruben Polendo and the cast, along with a series of workshops on mask-making and painting
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