Shakespeare’s Lear continues to be relevant today with his theme of ageing, betrayal and the travails of excessive and foolish love

Nothing Like Lear

Performed by: Cinematograph and The Company Theatre

Date: August 17

Venue: Corporation Kalaiarangam, R.S. Puram

In our eyes, Lear is a senile monarch. In the eyes of a clown, however, the king is a man. A father. An outcast. A child. A clown. The fool sees a kindred spirit, another fool. This old clown is the solitary character on stage in Nothing Like Lear, produced by Cinematograph and the Company Theatre and directed by Rajat Kapoor.

A postmodern narrative unfolds as the clown looks into Lear, who looks into the clown, distorting where the one begins and the other ends. The play takes inspiration from King Lear and its story of a foolish old man who descends into madness, but unlike traditional adaptations, this is a devised performance. Its stories are sometimes very specific. At other times, they are quite indeterminate and can belong anywhere.

Since this is a devised play, the storyline is made up of the stories and fragments that surfaced during improvisations with the cast comprising the Company Theatre’s artistic director Atul Kumar and Vinay Pathak with Rajat Kapoor. This process took place over two intense months before the script was frozen somewhat a few weeks prior to the first show.

The piece has the actors improvise even within the devised script as they effectively manipulate the viewers while simultaneously baring their own selves. In doing so what flickers to life on stage is a very real sense of shared vulnerability and risk taking with viewers that their craft as actors allows them. The narrative reflects the themes of King Lear: ageing, betrayal, the tragic wound-down story of a father-daughter relationship, the travails of excessive and foolish love.

These are narrated by a weeping, depressed clown who relates his accounts of a disastrous relationship with his daughter.

As the narrative progresses we discover a natural coming together of his story with some of most effective moments and scenes from King Lear and he speaks the tragic hero’s lines.

All of this is overlaid with touches of gibberish that give the clown the freedom to make associations and connections with the big themes of his narrative and also undermine the elements of his own tragedy by departing from it when it threatens to get too close to life.

How did you achieve the balance between the imperatives of a bound script and the choice to improvise on stage? How much of this is the work of the director and how much comes from the actor?

It seems like there is a lot of improvisation going on on stage, but it is not really true. Most of it is actually cleverly worked out. I would say about 98 per cent of the play is scripted. The rest is the space where the actor can play with the audience. But this happens in its designated place. It is a pretty tightly structured piece, in fact.

The gibberish is a bold aesthetic choice. What made you choose it? Does it restrict the appeal of the play to an audience that's used to the avant-garde?

Gibberish came into our lives when I did C For Clown in 1999. In that play we were wondering how clowns speak and came upon this way of communication. We found it very expressive and quite in tune with the play. We continued with the expression in my next play Hamlet The Clown Prince. Gibberish, rather than restricting the play, actually made it accessible to an even wider audience. We travelled with Hamlet to every city in India, and also to the U.K., China, Singapore, Dubai, Israel, Indonesia and the Netherlands. Gibberish actually transcended the language barrier. In comparison, Nothing Like Lear has very little gibberish. It is more the idea of continuity — but most of the play is in English, though an oddly accented English.

What is it about Shakespeare and King Lear that speaks to so many audiences even today, even as the works of so many other writers have come to seem “old-fashioned”?

I suppose that is why some texts are called great because they manage to keep their relevance after centuries. King Lear must touch upon something so universal in us that it has survived the test of time. I think with all mythology, or great art (or fairy tales) the key is that even though it is specific, it talks of larger concerns of human existence and that is why one feels it is important to us now as it was 500 years back. It fulfils some need, answers some essential questions — and that is why it lasts.