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Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ redux as Kathakali

French choreographer Annette Leday and Australian playwright David McRuvie bring back their Kathakali adaptation of the Bard’s famous tragedy

William Shakespeare’s King Lear has lent itself to multiple adaptations over the centuries. In the hands of French dancer and choreographer Annette Leday and Melbourne-born playwright David McRuvie, the classic Shakespearean tragedy becomes an experimental crossover platform where essentially “the Bard meets Kathakali.” Premièred in 1989, ‘Kathakali – King Lear’ went on to witness successful performances around the world, the last of which were held at the Globe Theatre in London in 1999.

Annette and David are now breathing life back into their “pet project” as part of an India tour. But the directors say the challenges posed by the substantive transformation from a literary and dramatic media to a physically expressive one have not been a bed of roses. However, they chose to tap into some of the “latent commonalities”. “Adapting a Shakespearean play for Kathakali has similar problems and opportunities as, say, adapting a play for ballet or for opera. Inevitably, there will be loss and gain,” says Annette. The selection of the play for such a dynamic stage adaptation was no brain-teaser for the duo, thanks to the universality of the themes in Lear. “As King Lear has two parallel stories, by presenting only the central story of Lear and his three daughters, we can condense the essence of Shakespeare in a simple but powerful story, which is appropriate for Kathakali. Secondly, the principal themes of the play, such as kingship, dowry, love, renunciation of the world, war etc, are central Kathakali themes as well,” explains David, adding that in terms of expertise, he concentrated more on Shakespeare, while Annette on Kathakali.

Stage is set Manoj Kumar (left) and Peesapilly Rajeevan during a rehearsal of Kathakali — King Lear; (above) Annette Leday and David McRuvie

Stage is set Manoj Kumar (left) and Peesapilly Rajeevan during a rehearsal of Kathakali — King Lear; (above) Annette Leday and David McRuvie
 
| Photo Credit:
S Gopakumar

 

Mudras, facial expressions and gestures in Kathakali mainly work by the interpretive intelligence of the audience, and the directors admit that they inevitably made “relevant” tweaks to the traditional style while exploring a new territory. “We have, of course, attempted our best to keep to the traditions and spirit of Kathakali. But some conventions have been broken and that’s probably where our stamp comes into play. For instance, the delightful character of the King’s Fool (jester) in our adaptation bears a novel character-type, something we developed from the ‘vidushaka’ of Koodiyattam. Another stand-out example would be a fortissimo percussion sequence to evoke the iconic storm scene, which is central to the action. Some of the innovations, no doubt, can been controversial!,” says David with a laugh.

Annette Leday

Annette Leday
 
| Photo Credit:
S Gopakumar

 

While Shakespeare’s King Lear is a five-act play, Annette and David divide their adaptation into nine scenes, effectively condensing the performance to one hour and 45 minutes. David composed his own “paraphrased” 16-page script of the play, keeping only the required elements, in English from the original, which was then translated into the Kathakali text in use by Kathakali playwright Kodungallur Marumakan Raja, known for his composition of Chilappathikaram as a Kathakali play.

David McRuvie

David McRuvie  
| Photo Credit:
S Gopakumar

 

Peesapilly Rajeevan dons the titular role, which is portrayed in a kathi vesham to highlight the protagonist’s “anti-hero” traits. The characters of the Lear’s two double-crossing daughters – Goneril and Regan – are portrayed in kari vesham while the benevolent Cordelia takes a minukku vesham. A seasoned artiste, Rajeevan credits the directors for giving him the “freedom” to improvise in such an artistic amalgamation. “The mudras and kalasam (foot movements) are, of course, untouched. As the experimental form aims to delve into the mindscape of Lear, my challenge has been to bring that in my expressions,” says Rajeevan.

Manoj Kumar, who has been part of the production since the late 80s and plays the Fool, says his role is modelled on a chakyar vesham. “What’s lost in the translation is made up through appropriate mudras or clever improvisation,” he says, while giving a word of praise for Kalamandalam Satheeshan’s chutti work. Others in the cast include Kalamandalam Praveen, Sadanam Bhasi, Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan et al, supported by Sadanam Jyotish Babu and Kalamandalam Vishwas on the vocals. Sadanam Ramakrishnan and Kalamandalam Rajanarayanan provide support with percussion.

Now, it’s time for Lear to take centre stage.

‘Kathakali – King Lear’, organised by Alliance Française de Trivandrum, will be staged at Levee Hall, East Fort, on November 30 at 6.30 pm. Entry is free

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