If Charles Lamb was born in the second half of the 20th century or early 21st century, he wouldn’t have suggested that “the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted” because it’s too gruesome for stage.
On the other hand, it would be safe to claim that John Keats’s tribute to the play, “the bittersweet of this Shakespearean fruit”, still holds true — after all, it is the greatest of tragedies written for stage.
Eminent artist Zia Mohyeddin must’ve had the enormity of the task — both in terms of artistic execution of the story and plausible interpretation of the text — in mind before deciding to direct an Urdu version with Khalid Ahmed doing Lear’s extremely demanding role.
The task is doubly challenging because the tale, four centuries after it was penned, has themes as contemporary as they can get: ingratitude, lust for power, filial betrayal and that inexorable tussle between body and soul.
Mohyeddin’s Urdu version that opened at the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) on Wednesday evening with a preview of the play held for the media, gives due respect to the themes and wisdom imparted through the story. It also shows an understanding of local theatre-goers for whom a little more than three-hour performance is a bit hard to sit through.
So the drama, translated by Khalid Ahmed, has bits edited out — not an awful lot, though. Even then the director and his ensemble Napa cast manage to keep the spirit of the sad tale pure.
It all begins when King Lear of Britain decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters Goneril (Mira Sethi), Regan (Shabana Hassan) and Cordelia (Natalia) by asking them, individually, how much they love him. Goneril and Regan use hyperbolic descriptions of their love for their father, but when it’s the turn of the youngest, Cordelia, to respond to the question that what can she say to “draw a third more opulent” than her sisters, she replies “nothing” (kuchh nahin).
This invites the wrath of the king and a heated dialogue ensues between him and Cordelia, which his close associate, the Earl of Kent (Fawad Khan), tries to pacify to no avail.
As a result, Kent is banished and Cordelia wins the affection of the king of France who expresses his will to marry her. She leaves the premises with him. Then there is a simultaneous track of another of Lear’s well-wishers Gloucester (Meesam Naqvi), who has a son Edgar (Nazr ul Hassan) and a villainous illicit son Edmund (Paras Masroor) — the latter constantly tries to plot against his father and sibling to cause them harm.
Once King Lear hands over his wealth and land to Goneril and Regan, the masks of affection on the women’s faces come off and they treat their father with disdain. Kent disguises himself to return to serve his master, as does Edgar after getting stuck in a trap laid by Edmund. But by now irreparable damage has been done. By the end of it all, the large canvas of the picture painted by Shakespeare is covered in bloodshed and madness.
King Lear is fundamentally about the dire consequences of not knowing right from wrong. The king fails to recognise the honesty in his youngest daughter and suffers mentally. Gloucester is not able to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate because of which he pays, during the course of the play, in the most hair-raising manner: his eyes are gouged out. His suffering is of a spiritual nature, as he himself realises: “I stumbled when I saw”.
Mohyeddin’s effort gets both the context and the subtext of the tale right. He succeeds in evoking the kind of sentiment in the audience that’s aimed at enabling them to see the fallibility of men and women of high stature. This is a production that students of literature and theatre must see.
At the heart of it all, though, is the character of King Lear. Over the years, the role has been played by the likes of John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins (and soon you will see the inimitable Al Pacino doing the same in a movie). Every actor has tried to come up with his own interpretation of the king by completely investing themselves in the part. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that there are, roughly, there levels of energy to Lear, the man.
One, when he is full of pomp and showiness, still in his throne. Two, when he relinquishes power to the two daughters, is looking for a good time but is taken aback by their behaviour. Three, when he loses his marbles. These three periods, if you like, demand distinctive emotions that can gel with each phase he is going through.
When he says, “I’m a man more sinned against than sinning,” he is no more the person who had earlier said with elan “Meanwhile we shall express our darker purpose”. And when he laments, “And my poor fool is hang’d,” he is about to give it all up, even his madness. One would like to believe that Khalid Ahmed is aware of all of this.
Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2019