Sarai – Sarah Hickson 620
Karlina Grace-Paseda in Sarai at the Arcola Theatre. Photograph: Sarah Hickson

Scriptural tale Sarai begins with the audience being plunged into literal and figurative darkness, as Abraham’s companion Sarai laments her childless state in an unforgiving ancient land.

It’s a thunderous opening to a story of migration, family and fulfilment, with Karlina Grace-Paseda as Sarai announcing herself as the play’s titular character and central force using the full force of her body and voice.

The production uses a minimal set, with music the only accompaniment to the performance. Sarai manipulates her on-stage environment to show the camp she has left, while costume changes accompany different circumstances.

Mood lighting reflects Sarai’s state-of-mind and invites the audience into her physical and symbolic journey. The live musical accompaniment is a fusion of cultures and could easily find a home at experimental jazz venue Cafe Oto next door.

Musical director Byron Wallen has assembled a quartet from the African, Middle Eastern and Japanese traditions, which provides a wholly original backdrop to events. Dynamic range is conveyed with the diverse array of instruments including cellos, trumpets, flutes, harps, percussion and drums. This pan-continental approach voices Sarai’s tribulations and is played with verve and precision, converging with her movements in moments of epiphany.

The production tells a religious story, all the while endowing it with wider significance. Grace-Paseda’s performance is full of classical intensity and poise, as she dominates the material in a multi-faceted, towering performance. Sarai is an enveloping theatrical experience that brings to life its source material and a reminder of the power and quality of Old Testament narratives.

Sarai is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 7 November.

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