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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Dubai’s rock-opera version of drama Shakuntala is going to Edinburgh

Dubai Modern Academy, which will be the first UAE school to present at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August, will be staging their touring production Shakuntala - the rock opera - in Dubai first.
the cast in rehearsal, with Akshatha Achar in the centre. Antonie Robertson / The National
the cast in rehearsal, with Akshatha Achar in the centre. Antonie Robertson / The National

Gems Modern Academy have been invited to stage their rock-opera version of the classic Indian drama Shakuntala at the upcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We meet the cast, who are currently preparing for shows in Dubai.

Akshatha Achar nervously paces around the stage of the brightly lit theatre at Gems Modern Academy in Dubai as fellow cast members of the school’s adaptation of Shakuntala position themselves for one the several after-school hours rehearsals. With a single wave from creative director Kevin Oliver, Achar, the 16-year-old soprano, who plays the lead, regains her poise and hits the highest notes in a love ballad.

Since September, Oliver – who is the cultural coordinator for the Gems education group – has been preparing 35 high-school students for Shakuntala, a tale from the pages of the Indian mythology Mahabharata, but reimagined as a rock opera by the director. This is not just another school performance. The academy will be the first UAE school to present the hour-long production at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August this year.

“It’s not every day you have a schoolgirl take on the role of a twentysomething to talk about love and marriage,” says Achar, after belting out three back-to-back songs. “To introduce emotions I’ve never felt before has been the difficult part.”

First dramatised by fifth-­century Indian poet Kalidasa, it is the story of Shakuntala, who lives in a hermitage in the forest and falls in love with King Dushyanta during his visit. He marries her before returning to his kingdom, but the maiden is cursed by a sage, erasing the king’s ­memory of her and forcing her to leave the forest.

Oliver, who has been directing musicals for more than 25 years, is a believer of deconstructionist theatre. The organisers of the fringe asked him to keep it low-key because of the time constraints, but he refused to tone it down.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very la-di-da. Everything has to be louder and bigger and I don’t know how to do simple.”

The music, primed with a lot of percussion against tracks ranging from pop, rap and guitar ­solos, is complemented with a monochromatic set design and flowing black-and-white stylised costumes.

“I wrote Shakuntala years ago and the first time we did it as a solo, I found it a bit static,” says Oliver, who has ­composed all the 20 songs in the musical.

“So we’ve opened the whole thing out and reproduced the tracks so that it is more modern and keeping with the times.

“We’ve kept it wacky and dark. The costumes are white to signify purity of the old Indian village maidens. The black introduces the darkness when she is cursed, and touches of saffron to ­indicate the religious aspect of it and to bring in colour.”

Most of the dresses are actual mixed-and-matched garments from commercial shops and embellished with beads and studs by Oliver himself. The boys and girls will be wearing dhotis (loincloths), layered with peplums and blouses; hair pulled up into braids and decorated with flowers and feet painted with tattoos. Achar’s costume has been designed by the designer Furne One, whose label Amato Haute Couture dresses celebrities such as Heidi Klum and Katy Perry.

Achieving the modern rock base in six-part harmony has been an intense journey for the students. The production concludes with Oliver’s If only the world loved each other they’d be peace number.

“This is the best way we can tell the audience a traditional tale and keep them hooked,” says Aditya Mukherjee, one of the backup singers. “Through a modern opera, we can get the young generation and a foreign crowd to relate to something so deeply rooted in our culture and history.”

Shakuntala is on tomorrow, Thursday and Friday at Gems Modern Academy’s theatre hall from 8pm. Tickets cost Dh50; call 04 326 3339

aahmed@thenational.ae