Raju, R. 2001

Iruthiattam, a 2001 Tamil-language adaptation of King Lear. The production was directed by R. Raju from a script by Indira Parthasarthy. Read More

Prologue: the making of a Fool

Prologue: Unlike the other two productions, this version of King Lear is an indigenisation of the play according to the dynamics of the terukutoo is an improvisatory dramatic form, which is liberally interspersed with music and dance. Its distinguishing characteristic is a rough and ready critique built into the playing through the improvisatory liberties given to the komali or the vidushaka / fool figure. The creative innovation of the performance is to use this convention of the folk form to comment on the heart of the play, i.e. the folly of the king.

The play thus opens with a roll of drums and the lights slowly coming on. Upon which a figure leaps in, is chased around, picked up, sat upon (literally), surrounded, and when the captors move away, he is discovered painted into a fool! The sequence ends with the character shyly accepting that “Now I am case as the joker / fool / komali.”

Fool’s song

He proceeds to act out the Fool, indulging in all the acrobatics of a fool: rolls, somersaults and leaps, and then starts to sing in a mocking tone:

If you use a headgear you are the master

If you wear a cap you are a fool

I have been given the dress / role of the fool…

The song celebrates the paradoxical equation between the king and the fool, which became the central trope of this production. Since the Fool remains present till the end in this adaptation, his function as an alter ego of the king becomes more emphasized.

Fool’s perspective

The Fool’s rolls and somersaults bring him face to face with a Sentry who mockingly asks him “What are you doing, rolling about? Are you performing the angapradakshanam prayer (ritual of body rolling in a circle)? To which the Fool replies, “No, that is the King’s pushishment.” “How is rolling a form of punishment? And why are you singing while rolling?” questions the Sentry, again. The Fool explains, “That is the meaning, the King is the deceived one … Don’t hit me (when the Sentry cudgels him)… Do you know that the King is going to suffer – he is going to make three pieces … today the King will distribute something, he has decided…”

The reference to the king reminds the Fool of his duties, which include heralding the king who is about to arrive. The two, Fool and Sentry join together to call out the elaborate epithets of the king, but their tone and comic knockabout manner is satirical. The implication of the dialogue and the stage business is that the Fool’s posture and perspective, not upright but rolling about, though seemingly absurd, derives from a prayer ritual and gives him a truer insight into a world which is irrational to begin with. It becomes a forewarning of the suffering as punishment that Lear is about to undergo. This is the characteristic idiom of the folk form, terukutoo, where a robust playful physicality critiques the more straight-laced world.

Lear’s entry with fanfare

Lear’s entry is in the traditional mimetic fashion; he comes, heralded by drums and flutes, swaying to the jogtrot movements of his chariot. Suddenly, he stops everything, jumps up, and then restarts the music, to be quickly followed by a sign for the music to stop again. This Lear is immediately signaled as a whimsical tyrant asserting a total control over his retinue who literally sing, dance, laugh, site, stand and jump to his tunes, and one who has a childish (juvenile) delight in making them do so.

Notice the “open” stage with partial flats at the back showing the seated musicians, and allowing quick entries and exits in full view of the audience. This king of open stage with the entire cast seated on stage, and with live music and miming is again characteristic of the non-illusionist style of the folk from terukutoo.

Lear narrates his intent

Lear narrates his intent: “I wish to retire and will divide the kingdom / country intro three parts. But first let me see how much they love me. They have affection, that is well known, but in vying with each other, their professions of love will be like honey to my ears. For the satisfaction of my ears let me listen to them.” The Sentry’s question, “What purpose will it server?” is a critical comment on this whimsical plan.

Note how Lear takes off his angavastam (body cloth) and not his headgear when he announces his intent to retire. The angavastam, a symbol of honour is used in several scenes for a telling dramatic effect. Note also how the Fool is constantly mirroring, in a comic exaggerated manner, the king’s actions and gestures.

Goneril and Regan are heralded

The two elder daughters enter announced by the Fool and to the accompaniment of a musical fanfare. Lear rushes to them with obvious pleasure.

Note the tribal dress (not group specific) of all the characters which along with their shrill voices, lack of courtliness of manner and polish in language was part of the attempt to de-canonize Shakespeare, turn the play intro street entertainment for the ordinary people which is what the terukutoo is meant to do.

Cordelia enters separately

Cordelia enters later, separately from her sisters and bows to Lear. This adaptation has a feminist slant, therefore it did away with the formal ritual of feet touching, seen in Samrat Lear.

Goneril speaks and is rewarded

Goneril / Kanaka’s professtion of love and Lear is hugely, and literally, “tickled” by her words. Happily flattered, he gives her her due. Broad gestural play and expressionistic body language is integral to terukutoo and is used to simultaneously support and critique the characterisation throughout the production. Lear’s scratching of his back himself is a piece of theatrical physicalisation that functions as a satiric comment on his love-test, which, in actuality, is a huge ego-massage for him.

Regan weeps and is rewarded too

Regan does one better, she brings on the tears: “When I think of my father, tears come to my eyes, don’t press me into this public profession of love, tears choke me.” Again the interpolated stage business supplements and critiques the action. The Fool, Lear’s alter ego, in a king of ventriloquist gesture, starts scratching Lear’s vanity. This public profession of love is satirized when the rest of the assembled courtiers, and even Lear himself, echo Regan’s crying in a wailing chorus, showing that everyone knows what is to come and can perform it accordingly on cure. Lear gives Regan and Cornwall their portion in accompaniment to a chorus of approval from the onlookers.

Cordelia’s “nothing”

Lear turns invitingly to Cordelia only to be hit by her “Nothing!” He almost loses his non-chalance and his balance on his stick, fumbles, and retort’s “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.”

Cordelia’s political protest

Cordelia, in this production has more than the usual words: her arguments against Lear have evolved into political consciousness. Not only does she challenge the vanity of the love-test, but she also questions the wisdom of parceling off the kingdom: “You are my father, you have brought me up, but dividing the country is not fair to the people, it is against the people.” The Sentry, a commoner, sends up a quick cheer in support of Cordelia, underlining the grassroot perspective that is integral to the folk theatre forms.

Goneril and Regan rebuke Cordelia

Goneril and Regan immediately, and sycophantically, jump to the defense of Lear. They sharply rebuke Cordelia: “How dare you insult our father!”

Kent intervenes and is banished

Kent intervenes in support of Cordelia: “She is speaking the truth, you should respect her, she deserves justice,” and is thrown down and banished for his pains. The expressionistic physicality of the staging is seen in Lear’s angry tapping of his staff, his throwing down of Kent, his jeering laughter and the raising of his stick to hit Kent until stopped by Gloucester. It emphasizes the egotistical quirkiness of Lear’s behaviour.

Cordelia’s final statement and her banishment

Cordelia continues: “Why do my sisters have husbands, if they say they love you all? … Don’t divide the country, it’s not in the interests of the people.” Her repeated independence of view infuriates Lear: “Am I mad?” He then jumps around, bangs down his crown (the Fool who both mimics and mocks him does the same) and flounces off without giving Cordelia anything, “I disinherit you.” She calls after him, “Appa / Father,” but to no avail. The Fool, calling “Tatta / Grandfather” rushes after him.

The elder sisters corner Cordelia

The two elder sisters accuse Cordelia of angering the father and ruining his public ceremony. Then Albany intervenes to express his reservations: “I don’t like what is happening,” only to receive a cutting rejoinder “What did you get by tellingthe truth?” from Goneril. She mocks him, “You are a coward. I will take care of the kingdom.” “That is what I am worried about,” retorts Albany. They all stride out leaving Cordelia alone and subdued on stage. This was an inverse “leave taking,” with Goneril and Regan taking the upper hand. Cordelia’s marriage to France and later return as Queen to England was deleted from the plot. Cordelia became a more single minded and independent character.

Fool’s satirical Interlude

In an interlude led by the Fool a pungent critique is voiced: the Fool rushes onstage and after a minute of foolery and horseplay with the Sentry, he adopts another unusual posture, bending over to peer between his legs. This prompts the Sentry to mockingly ask him “What can you see in this upside down position? The King must have gone mad to split the country.” To which comes the prompt reply: “We will understand something – before punishing someone, the Gods make him mad. Not giving to our Chitrangi / Cordelia was wrong. People are perplexed.”

This literal and metaphoric “up-ended view” of Lear’s behaviour again underlines the Fool’s role as a satirical commentator, a role which is both physically and metaphorically concretized on stage. The perspective of the folk form is chimed in consistently.

Fool introduces the subplot

The Fool introduces the sub-plot, as the story of the rich and the fat ones, with a jibe, the view from below as it were, at Gloucester’s adultery, that “servants in rich men’s houses should not be beautiful, otherwise they will get big bellied! These are rich men’s foibles and deeds.” Though the Gloucester sub-plot is introduced after the rejection of Lear by Cordelia, it nevertheless has the same universalizing implications in this adaptation.

Lear’s second entry

Lear’s second entry, with fanfare. He comes, as before, miming the motion and movements of riding a chariot. He goes round the stage to show a distance being traversed, then stops center stage and calls out to his Fool: “Vidushaka / jester why are you so quiet? Speak, I am the King who commands.” The Fool’s riposte, “I am allowed to keep quiet, I am a fool, but you are a bigger fool!” keeps up the tradition of critique by the wise Fool.

Goneril, Oswald and Lear

When Oswald complains about Lear to Goneril, this Lear, more irascible and physical than usual, rushes to strike him with his staff, only to be held back by a curt rebuke form Goneril, “It is my job to punish my servants!” This is the beginning of Lear’s chastisement, and he is already smarting.

Goneril chastises Lear

Goneril continues her chastisement of Lear: “You are not fit to live in a palace, you think this is a bazaar. You should go live in a temple. You are old but you think that your young days will return; your luxuries and demands are too much for me.” Lear walks out in an outraged huff with Kent and the Fool following.

Goneril’s soliloquy

Goneril’s soliloquy: “I will send advance word to my sister. When he stays neither here or there and is tossed around like a ball, only then will the old man learn.” Lear needs to be pulled down a peg or two, but this Goneril, though not so vicious and hard-hearted as usually played, was not devoid of ambition.

Lear’s third entry, with fanfare and song

Lear’s third entry, en route to Regan’s castle, again riding and miming a chariot to the accompaniment of a choric song from the singers and musicians seated at the rear of the stage. The words of the song, “Desire’s an elephant desire’s a horse, and desire’s a welcome and worship with a silver platter,” emphasize that the King is still lusting after ceremonious rituals and his egotism has not abated.

Fracas outside Regan’s palace

In front of Regan’s castle: Oswald, who has arrived here with a letter from Goneril warning her sister about Lear, sees the King and his party and, acting out his mistress’s ire, trips the Fool. Lear instantly jumps into the fracas, until Gloucester appears, and to prove Lear’s unruliness to him, Kent is produced all bound up, punished for roughing up Oswald and the sentries.

Kent is released

Lear to Kent: “Did not my daughter protest that it (binding you up) was wrong?” Kent: “She said you will not be welcomed.” To Gloucester, in a rage “My man bound up Why?” Gloucester tries to calm him, beginning his address as “Chakravarty / Lord of the World.” The irony of this is not lost on Lear who immediately rebukes Gloucester by saying, “You call me Chakravarty, but when my man is tortured, you keep quiet!” Gloucester is shamed into releasing Kent.

Regan tries to reason with Lear

Regan tries to talk to Lear, seemingly more reasonable; she comes and sits next to him and does not adopt the usual imperious or artful manner of most Regans. When Lear goes down on his knees, up front, and starts pleading in exaggerated humility, she makes him get up and restrain his histronics. “You should not have left her (Goneril)” she says.

Lear’s dirge-like grief at rejection

Lear’s dirge like moan of grief when he finally realizes that his daughters are not prepared to give an inch, and that selfishly they are going to keep all that he has given them for their own selves: “When your mother died I was both father and mother to you. I did not put you through the torture of a stepmother. How can you forget all this? I brought you up, made you Queen. Instead of a heart you have iron.” Unfeeling Regan turns around to snap at him, “Don’t repeat the old stories.”

The one and rhythm of a mourning dirge, typical to Tamil culture, along with its set patterns and gestures, give a ring of authenticity to the depth of the rejection and despair that Lear feels at this moment when he has no one to turn to.

Lear pleads with folded hands

Goneril arrives on the scene and upbraids Lear for his highhanded behaviour. Cornwall and Regan too add their bit. Lear pleads / begs, in a most poignant manner, with folded hands, a posture usually adopted when speaking to the elders or to someone in authority by the lowly. The sisters remain unmoved, driving him to seek consolation in the embrace of his remaining followers, Kent and the Fool.

Lear’s ultimate abjection: lies down on his body cloth

In a gesture of ultimate abjection, Lear spreads his angavastam / body-cloth (the long scarf on the shoulder), a symbol of honour, which was usually worn by the elite, on the floor. This showed his complete humiliation, a giving up of his self-respect in which he is reduced to the lowest level. He lays himself down on it, to emphasize his helplessness and begs the daughters for shelter and support, addressing them as “Tai” / Mother. When he receives the daughters’ hauteur in return: Regan “You have fought with her, I cannot take you back,” and Goneril: “Three months here, three there, without your retinue,” something gives up within him and he petitions the Gods for patience.

Lear’s madness

Lear’s humilation turns to rage: he begins to curse the world and invokes a tempest, cosmic destruction and the end of the world. “Blow wind, etc. ” … He then begs for patience, and has a foreboding: “King, looks like you will be mad, run, run, from here,” says he running off the stage.

Gloucester upbraids the sisters

Loyal Gloucester upbraids the sisters for their mistreatment of their father, “Stop him, it’s your duty!” Goneril and Regan mock him in return, “What duty?” Cornwall is furious at Gloucester’s temerity in telling the Queens their duty and orders that he be thrown out, “He will be a companion for the King!” Then the storm invoked by Lear takes over.

Storm breaks and Lear curses the world

The storm. The Fool searching for Lear and Lear wailing about ungrateful people in despair. Note the choric stylization with music and choreography for the depiction of the storm.

Cordelia comes to rescue Lear

The voice of Cordelia, calling, searching for the father. Cordelia appears during the storm to rescue Lear: “Did you have to suffer so much?” She finds Lear totally repentant: “Forgive me,” he weeps, “Don’t call me father, the word stabs me. I became a victim of words. I banished you. Daughter, forgive me.” Cordelia, mindful of her duty, is generous and loving: “You don’t need to suffer. Come.” She picks him up and takes him away. They exit with Lear leaning on her shoulder.

This was a “happy” ending Lear, in which Lear is seen to have suffered enough humiliation at the hands of the two elder sisters that the idea of his death, so often seen in mainstream criticism, too, as gratuitous, was rejected. Similarly, the death of Cordelia, even more gratuitous, was made redundant. The story was treated as an analysis of power structures in the the famil and the state, in the personal and the public spheres. Hence, though the two elder sisters were shown as equivocating to grab power, they were not made into monsters. Cordelia, on the other hand, was not the angelic, good daughter, but an alert young woman aware of the rights of others. She puts the larger interest of the country – do not divide the kingdom, it’s not fair to the people – before her self-interest, which is inheriting her own portion of the kingdom. Though King Lear had been adapted to end happily many times, the logic of this adaptation partookof the traditional philosophy of all the arts in India, that the primal function of creativity is to show reconciliation, not defeat, of man in relation to God, and it was coloured by the folk form’s pungent variation on it showing how man brings his own suffering upon himself.

Fool’s last words

The play ends with the voice of the Fool plaintively calling out for, searching for, Lear, “Tatta, Tatta…” / Grandfather. The Fool is given the last word in keeping with his role as sutradhara or choric commentator, underlining the central paradox of the play: “The King said – do you remember (to the audience)? – I was his other half? Whe you are the Fool, you know the intelligent / knowing ones are fools. Then who is the wise one? Me. There is no competition, no quarrel, no fight for my position / title.”

The Fool is left carrying Lear’s wrap and staff – symbols of power – of which Lear has at last been divested. He continues to call for him, not knowing that Lear has been taken away by Cordelia. The play closes on an elegiac note, memorializing the sufferings caused by the failure to understand oneself.