Shakespeare through Kathakali's lens: Director Annette Leday revives thirty year old adaptation of King Lear

Kathakali, one of the most fiercely expressive forms of Indian classical dance, is rooted in storytelling. Akin to Freytag’s pyramid – a structure with a beginning, a climax and a denouement – a traditional Kathakali recital also begins with soft tones with a gradually increasing tempo as the story progresses to the conflict, and concludes with strains that usher in a calming note.

Perhaps this is what makes this dance form a beautiful patina on which to lay out a Shakespearean tragedy and have the audience experience an identical cathartic impact through the fusion, as through the play or a traditional recital.

The revival of Kathakali-King Lear, created by the French dancer, choreographer and director Annette Leday and Australian playwright David McRuvie, three decades after its first performance thereby brings the Bard’s play and Kerala’s celebrated culture to contemporary Indian audiences.

In 1989, Leday and McRuvie conceived the Kathakali adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear comprising nine scenes that emphasise on the dramatic elaboration of King Lear and his daughter Cordelia’s tragedy.

“The key is to choose the right play,” Leday said.

One of the many reasons that she chose this play for an adaptation was that presenting its central plot, that of Lear and his three daughters, could capture its essence in a “simple but powerful story which is appropriate for Kathakali.”

According to the director, Kathakali and Elizabethan theatre are very different art forms and yet certain themes reflected in Shakespeare’s King Lear, such as kingship, dowry, love story, renunciation of the world, war, are central to Kathakali. They are universal and timeless human motifs.

Traditional Kathakali recitals often narrate stories from Indian epics such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and texts such as the Bhagavata Purana that explore many such similar ideas.

“King Lear, unlike other tragedies,” she noted, “is based on an older English theatrical tradition of character-types — as is Kathakali.”

 Shakespeare through Kathakalis lens: Director Annette Leday revives thirty year old adaptation of King Lear

Artists during a performance of Annette Leday's Kathakali-King Lear. Image courtesy Keli/Paris

Leday came to India in 1978 to study Kathakali dance-theatre at Kathakali Sadanam and Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University of Art and Culture. She founded the Annette Leday/Keli company in 1983 and has since then been working towards nurturing intercultural creations orienting them towards the contemporary world.

Leday’s brainchild, Kathakali-King Lear, was previously performed over seventy times around the world in 1989 and toured through countries such as France, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and the Netherlands. It was also performed once at Trivandrum in Kerala during the same year. This time around, the play will once again feature the very same generation of artists who performed the first iteration of this piece.

Peesappilli Rajeev, who essays the eponymous King Lear said, “Our initial worry was about the reaction of most conservative circles in Kathakali in Kerala. But our performance in Trivandrum was a success.”

As Leday noted, back then, there was some resistance to such a venture. Now, this has been replaced by, for the most part, genuine enthusiasm. Leday also attributed this change to the success of the production around the world. “This is as it should be,” she said, “A production must prove itself to its audience.”

Kalamandalam Manoj Kumar who plays the king’s Fool in the Kathakali recital said that this experiment with a story that comes from a Western culture has inspired many Kathakali artists in Kerala to explore new stories themselves.

All of the characters in this Shakespeare’s tragedy are assigned traditional kathakali character-types or veshams (costumes). Each of the veshams has its own distinct costume and make-up. This would be one of the major reasons this adaptation is so well suited as Leday explained that the Kathakali veshams fit these particular characters quite naturally which would have been very difficult for any other Shakespeare play.

Artists performing in Annette Leday's Kathakali-King Lear. Image courtesy Keli/Paris

Artists performing in Annette Leday's Kathakali-King Lear. Image courtesy Keli/Paris

Certain histories trace the origin of Kathakali back to Kuttiyattam, a folk art performed in temples and Kumar pointed out that the adaptation of King Lear was the first time that a traditional Kutiyattam vesham was used in a Kathakali play. Thirty years ago, he would have to dress in the Kuttiyattam Vidushaka with a Kathakali make-up. Today, the whole of the Kutiyattam Vidushaka has been retained in the performance. Keeping the spirit of Kathakali intact whilst exploring new territory, Leday noted that the Fool in this performance was actually developed from the Vidushaka of the ancient Sanskrit theatre.

Kumar, partial to the trial scene in the cave wherein Lear, sinking further into madness holds a mock trial for his treacherous daughters Regan and Goneril as the Fool launches into a madman’s tirade, noted that the artists could align their characters using the Kathakali technique with this adaptation very easily. The Trial scene particularly generates a rather hallucinatory and even a slightly eccentric experience. But for the artists, the storm scene, in which Lear yields to his rage and runs off into the heath in the tempestuous weather and denounces his daughters is particularly enjoyable. Leday added that the percussion sequence employed to evoke the great Storm is quite central to the action in the play.

However, the artists also enjoy the first scene which opens with King Lear dividing his kingdom between his daughters. The troupe opined that this is something that does not exist in Kathakali and it is for them the best way to enter the story and establish the dramatic situation of the characters.

There are no doubt certain alterations made to the previous version even as the choreography has been kept intact. Back then, Kumar said that the role of Lear was distributed to two different performers while today only one actor plays King Lear.

“In today’s production, tempo has been accelerated and duration reduced,” he added.

The Shakespearean text is also transformed to adapt it into Kathakali but nevertheless, as Leday pointed out, the powerful means of expression of Kathakali — dance, theatre, song, percussion, make-up — wonderfully project the power of the central storyline of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Leday conceded that there could be certain other innovations that would probably be controversial but carefully thought out with the great masters of Kathakali, they are "at the very least interesting."

Kathakali-King Lear will tour through India in 2018 and will be performed at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris in April 2019, marking the 30th anniversary of its creation.

Presented by Avid Learning and Alliance Française de Bombay, the play will be staged at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai on 13 December, 2018.

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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2018 09:48:18 IST