KATHAKALI KING LEAR
Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1
Opened 6 July, 1999

This summer's "Globe to Globe" international presentation is David McRuvie's adaptation of King Lear into the traditional theatrical form of Kerala, southern India, for the Annette Leday/Keli Company. When I first saw it in Edinburgh in 1990, as a rude youth unversed in international theatre, I remember feeling slightly guilty that it had engaged me so little, and assuming that the fault must be mine. A decade (and almost 2000 shows in my career) later, I am not so sure.

Although a synopsis is sung (in Sanskrit) before each scene and crucial moments are accompanied by sung poems, Kathakali theatre primarily depends upon highly evolved languages of dance and gesture to convey the characters' words and feelings. It is in no way intended flippantly to say that watching a production such as this without being able to interpret these complex codes is akin to listening to a radio play in a language one cannot speak: only occasional individual terms break through for the rest, one must rely on general impressions and extrinsic knowledge.

So, then, McRuvie's adaptation, although entirely dispensing with the Gloucester plot, noticeably retains details as minute as the maddened king's "trial" of Goneril in the form of a stool and even the direction "Enter Lear, fantastically dressed with flowers". As against this, it also introduces lengthy set-pieces at moments such as Cordelia's departure for France, and her royal husband's decision to wage war on Goneril and Regan on the abused Lear's behalf. These solo spots are, frankly, tedious, in a way which I have never experienced watching Chinese or Japanese theatre.

Perhaps, then, the fault lies with the adaptation rather than the form. For every point of sensitivity, such as the climax of the first half in which Lear removes his crown an integral part of the costume of a Kathakali "king" actor, and thus in the context of the form a shocking coup de théâtre there is a slowing of the pace for a solo workout, or a scene such as Goneril and Regan trying and failing to woo the King of France which resembles nothing so much as a stylised episode from Cinderella. At the matinée performance I saw, the audience seemed to be paying barely as much attention to the proceedings onstage as to staying in the shade on a sweltering afternoon as the shadows moved around the Globe's yard, and I suspect the fault for this state of affairs lay with the production rather than the sun.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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