“Even the most fictional of Shakespeare’s characters have something very real and relatable about them,” says Vinay Pathak
I must confess, I am not particularly fond of King Lear—a selfish and irresponsible king who can’t look through flattery and deceit, and a one-man manual to how not to parent. So it is surprising that I would drag myself to a play where this man-child is given the whole stage to fool around for 90 whole minutes. But I did. And I did it thrice.
Rajat Kapoor’s Nothing Like Lear is nothing like Lear but so much like him. Like all his Shakespeare adaptations, this is a clown’s version of the play, only this time we get to see a different side of the clown where he is a depressed and somewhat irritable man acutely aware of the fact that he is old, senile and lonesome. But on stage he puts up a show trying hard to make the audience laugh with his antics, whitewashing his grief with the clown’s make-up, because the show must go on. Vinay Pathak plays both the fool, and the foolhardy king to perfection. But while watching the play for the third time, what impresses me more is how he has kept the play fresh for the past five years.
Keeping it fresh
“If you have done around 125 shows of a play, you have played to those many new set of audiences. So they are watching a fresh play every time,” Pathak tries to laugh off the question before revealing his trick. “We try to keep it contemporary and relevant to the day and moment. Also, since it is a one-man piece it is easier to make impromptu changes. Almost in every show there would be one or two members in the audience who would give me new material to play with,” he quips.
He recalls an incident that happened during one of their recent shows in Abu Dhabi. “There was this girl in the audience just couldn’t stop laughing. She didn’t laugh at any of the funny moments. But started to crack up during one of the most emotional scenes! I was telling Cordelia that people get old but this is no way to treat your aging father, and was searching for the pathos within me when she started to giggle. It broke the rhythm of the play. I had to stop and as an audience interaction I asked her “Are you laughing at me so much?” She said yes and went on laughing.
“I knew I needed to figure a way around the situation. So started addressing her as Cordelia and started interacting with her as the father talking to his daughter. It looked as if the daughter is mocking his aging father. “This is what happens. You laugh at your father when he is old,” I ended. And just like that I had not only salvaged the play but it had suddenly become more real and relatable, and got the entire audience emotional!” he laughs. “It is created as an interactive play. A new joke, a new humour, a new relationship develops each time I am doing a show.”
In the last 40 odd shows we are using new lines that were not written in the original script. This had come up during one such audience interaction and we decided to keep it,” he says adding however, that all the improvisations are done staying well within the realm of the play. “We don’t get confused if Lear should be saying this or not. The questions that we had, were already asked and answered during the creation of the play,” he says and then as if reading mind, goes on: “Now you will ask why I am calling this a ‘creation’ when it is already a written play! We call it a creation, and also we call it Nothing Like Lear, because it is not Shakespeare’s Lear!”
Not without Shakespeare
But he admits that while they were in the process of creating the play, Rajat, Atul and him used to read the play every day. “Even if you have to spoof it you better know the play thoroughly! We very diligently read every character, scene, moment, emotion.... And we did it every day for three months! We had to create the spine for the play first and that takes time. But since we have made it a fool’s version, we have the scope to improvise. But, that is where we bounce from.”
Vinay’s relationship with Lear, like most of us, goes long back. “This was when I was studying in Allahabad. I had English literature as my major but I also had Hindi literature as my elective subject. So, I had read the original as well as a Hindi translation of it done by Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan,” he recalls. Even back then, it was the father in Lear that had impacted him the most. “It was always like what kind of father is this guy? And then you would go…oh even my grandfather is like that!”
In fact I think that is what makes Shakespeare universal and timeless. You always find a connect. There is a certain feasibility in all his characters, however fancy and fantastical the backdrop or the settings are. Even the most fictional of his characters have something very real and relatable about them. You somehow start responding to them emotionally.”
The father’s story
In Rajat’s play, Lear becomes modern day father. He is lonely and old. His children have left him and moved to different cities. We catch his as he has packed his suitcase and travelled to the city to meet his daughter Cordelia looking for some love and affection. This is not the Lear we know, but then may be if Lear wrote his own story, this would be his preferred version. At the end of the day, we all love to believe that we are the victim and did nothing to deserve this fate!
“Our play is about having power and losing it. It is about old age. But mostly, it is about father-daughter relationship. We focus on the mad senile side of father who is majority of the times a tad unfair to the daughter.” Although it is Nothing like Shakespeare’s Lear, is everything about what Lear goes through. “We have our own ways of touching those points,” he smiles.
But for Rajat, as well as his Lears, Atul and Vinay, this play is a very personal one. “Rajat, Atul and I are all fathers to daughters. And the father in us soulfully brought the play together. The more we do the play, that father side of Lear gets a little bit stronger, bit more nuanced,” says Vinay. However he adds that unlike Lear all three of them are doting dads who are often taken for a ride by their children! “None of us have the madness and the unfairness of the lunatic authoritarian father. But at the same time the play has made us acutely aware of what a father can become. All our daughters have seen the play so many times that they have also invested in it in a strange way,” he says. “Rajat and I keep talking about this … wouldn’t be great if we can do the play when we are really old. Just imagine we have turned 80 and still playing Lear …and our daughters sitting in the audience!”
He admits that as a father, it is also a very difficult play for him to perform. “I often get overwhelmed with emotions during the play and it often happens at the wrong moments! It hits me hard every time I do the play. But this is also the right play to channelize those emotions...
“Every time I do the play somewhere deep inside I get scared… what if this happens between me and my daughter? In fact, with me and my daughters it works as a cautionary tale. We often talk about this often. I hope we can steer clear of that path and even if such a situation arises we can see it through together, he says. “But then every relationship goes through so much. You never know ...” his voice trails.
Whatever future holds, we are sure it will be nothing like Lear!
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From HT Brunch, April 27, 2018
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