Opinion | This Election Season, Even Shakespeare's Fool Wants You To Think

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Vinay Pathak in Nothing Like Lear

Courtesy: Unmask Studio

Vinay Pathak wakes up to bad news one day. Out of habit, as he opens the newspaper to savour with his morning cup of tea, bad news leaps out of the pages. He's quick to assure us that it isn't about a politician eating fish during the Navratri festival. He's just gone partially blind. And he's depressed. Because his beloved daughter has gone away to live in another city. He plans a surprise visit to her, only to be turned away by the outraged young woman, who cannot believe he didn't bother to call before coming to see her. He's heartbroken and bitter, and hurls curses at her. This and more.

Except none of it is true. Or maybe all of it is. And in the intermediary space between truth and lies exists Rajat Kapoor's popular clown adaptation of William Shakespeare's King Lear. Titled Nothing Like Lear, the play is a solo act by Vinay Pathak - an integral part of Kapoor's creative team in theatre and cinema - setting and upsetting the audience's expectations. 

A Political Clown

Pathak in Nothing Like Lear is the darkest of Kapoor's 'clowns'. He's also essentially political without even delivering any suggestive political gags. Staying true to the clown tradition, Pathak builds this almost two-hour-long performance with and around the audience participation. The interaction is not just verbal and (almost) physical but also cerebral. His oft-repeated jibe, "You never learn", hits particularly hard during the general election season. His chiding of the politician in the audience is straight in the nose. His "I'm watching you" is bigger and more sinister than a mere conveying of a sibling rivalry. 

In more than a decade of Nothing Like Lear's first performance, a lot has changed. Pathak's credentials as one of India's finest actors are firmly established. He is surer of his hold over the audience, just like one of the most successful Indian politicians of all time. "You give them anything, they'll just lap it up," Pathak says, pulling no punches. This line is true for not just the audience in Kamani Auditorium but also the captive voters. Like Shakespeare's Fool, Pathak's role is to make us aware of our hubris, naivete, follies, and darkness. 

Passion, Reason, Human Nature

"King Lear is unique among the tragedies in having a fully developed subplot," said poet and academic W.H. Auden. A tragic story of ungrateful children and mistaking parents, the play offers an opportunity for Kapoor and Pathak to unpack the reasons for the breakdown in personal and political spheres. At the heart of this breakdown is nature. Human nature. Both passion and reason are shown to be the cause of personal and social chaos. As though one's doom is predestined.

Pathak is not just a bumbling clown from Kapoor's clown repertory, he's Shakespeare's Lear, Gloucester, Edmund, Edgar, Poor Tom, Cordelia, and more. He's also the mechanic who is forced to fill in for his absent step-brother, a star actor who makes ladies pregnant merely by 'poking' them on Facebook. More importantly, he's the no-nonsense narrator, or even MC, who has no intention of tolerating the bad manners of Delhi's theatre-goers. Or their mispronounced words. "It's memory. Not mammary." 

Pathak is as vulnerable as he is ruthless. He's acutely aware of the presence of some of his fans who have seen him performing the same act for more than a decade. The age gag is, therefore, a bit too real this time. His 'curse' hurled at the ungrateful child, "Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!...How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/To have a thankless child" is more diabolical, and you flinch at the sudden revealing of a controlling father's selfishness. The hunted is at once revealed to be the hunter.

Holding A Mirror To The Audience

Brought to Delhi by a young thespian group called Unmask Studio, Nothing Like Lear is a play for all seasons. Just like Pathak, the play has matured. It is also longer. From the original 80, it now runs for almost 110 minutes. Shakespearean soliloquies sit at ease with gibberish, Pathak delivering both with equal finesse. For the old-timers and academically oriented, there's joy in exploring the nuance of Shakespeare's poetic genius, and for the generation grown up on stand-up comedy acts, there is a liberal dose of gags. But that's perhaps how the audience at The Globe was kept entertained by the Bard!

More than four centuries after his death, William Shakespeare's craft of making the audience hold a mirror to their selves is coming in handy when reflection, too, is merely performative. Pathak, the Fool, thunders onstage. "You believe everything." He's both amused and disgusted. He goes on to chide that just because an investment has been made, there is a willing suspension of disbelief. 

For some, the investment is made in the form of a play ticket and for others, it is the vote.

(Nishtha Gautam is a Delhi-based author and academic)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author