Friday, April 14, 2006

King Leer

Aishwarya's comment to my last post made me think of this one:

Hands down the worst performance of a Shakespeare play I ever had the misfortune to see was this travesty of King Lear put up by the students of Baroda University. This was way back in the late 90's, in Delhi. The folks at ICCR had this triple bill of Shakespeare plays - including that version of Othello in Kathakali. And King Lear.

Now the thing is - I WORSHIP King Lear. It's impossible to have a favourite Shakespeare play, but if I had to pick one, Lear would be the one I would pick. Don't get me wrong - I love Hamlet as much as the next guy, but there's something about Lear (Keats calls it "the fierce dispute / betwixt damnation and impassioned clay / ... the bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit") that is just special to me.

So anyway, we get to the theatre. It doesn't look good. There are exactly 24 people in the audience. The four of us (me, my parents and a friend), three sets of proud parents with a proud sister thrown in, one extremely stoned looking guy, and twelve Japanese businessmen lined up in the last row - clearly there to check out the Indian theatre 'scene'. I've just discovered that the play is being performed by students from Baroda University. I'm trying not to be judgemental about this. They may be quite good, I tell myself. I mustn't be a snob (you can see how naive I was - I still thought being snooty was a bad thing).

The play starts. It turns out to be the Patel store version of King Lear. To begin with, the company feels that the play is too long. So they decide they don't need all this side story with Gloucester and his sons. What's the point of that - it's supposed to be about this Lear guy, right? All this parallel narrative will only confuse the audience.

Not that they cut Gloucester out entirely. He still puts in an appearance. For all of the one scene where he has to get his eyes plucked out [1]. This is the most animated scene in the play - largely because I suspect it's the one scene that the cast members actually understand. There's a lot of screaming, a lot of lurid lighting, a lot of spilled ketchup. The Ramsay brothers would have been proud.

If that wasn't bad enough, the players also decide that all this abstruse wording might get a bit much for the audience. Who's going to spend all this time learning thous and thees? So they rewrite the dialogue, entrusting this trivial detail to a semi-literate twelve year old brought up on a staple diet of Hindi films. The result is a script that doesn't quite get to the point where Cordelia shouts "Pitaaji" and runs into her father's arms - but she comes close.

Oh, and the acting. It wasn't that they were bad actors, exactly. I'm sure their school plays in Class III brought down the house. The only trouble was that they didn't seem to have figured out that it was actually possible to move and talk at the same time. So dialogue delivery consisted of stopping flat-footed on stage, taking a deep breath, and then launching into their lines, eyes firmly fixed on some distant point on the horizon. You got the feeling that they were a little miffed with Shakespeare for putting in all this endless talk. A little less conversation, a little more action, you could see them thinking. More opportunities to drag out the props left over from last year's performance of Ramayana and show off their sword-fighting skills.[2]

There ought to be a law against playslaughter. 5 to 15 years in prison with nothing to read but Tamerlane.

P.S. For a truly interesting take on Lear - go watch Kurosawa's Ran. It's barely Shakespeare (you lose the text, the plot gets modified) and yet it's entirely brilliant.


[1] Errr...I'm assuming I didn't need spoiler warnings on that one.

[2] The people I felt really sorry for were the Japanese Businessmen. Every time I turned around I could see them watching with rapt concentration, sweat staining their buttoned collars, trying to grasp the deeper cultural nuances of the performance. If that's the only play they watched while they were in India (pray God that it wasn't) they're probably still out there, haunting the Tokyo cultural scene, delivering bon mots about 'the burlesque plasticity' of Indian theatre, its concern with 'reducing the dramatic act to its two dimensional core'.

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Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the time when my school troupe performed "Julius Caesar", with just one mike to go around, so that the only movement on stage was that of the actors passing the mike around. The dialogue and the acting was pretty much similar to what you've described here. And yes, Caesar had to wait too, after being stabbed, before he could grab at the mike and say his lines.

Totally agree, a playslaughter law is in dire need -- even if the actors are in high school.

I thought "Humour" got left out in the categories, no? And yes, "the late 90's" are officially now "way back"...sheesh, time flies.


Anonymous said...

I loved this one. There are many instances of playslaughter in schools and colleges. My school had performed 'Antony And Cleopatra' when I was in grade 12 (only a few months back). 5 to 15 years is not enough for what they did to it.

Why must they perform Shakespeare if they cannot?

Crp said...

At the tender age of ten I played Petruchio on a School-Day production of Taming of the Shrew. (So even now I start most of my sentences with "We actors ...").

Nothing wrong with the play but for a rollicking comedy I remember it wasn't getting that many laughs. Maybe it had something to do with half a dozen kids in weird costumes trying to outsqueal each other ... I don't know.

One kid marked his entry on stage by tripping on his cloak. Now, that's Shakespeare.

Falstaff said...

RS / Anirudh / Crp: Thanks. More memories of disastrous theatre performances coming up. Watch this space (well - the space at the top of the page once you get back to the main blog, but you know)

Anonymous said...

You should've seen this season's Macbeth in Bombay. As a friend said, they weren't acting, they were merely standing around and enunciating.