Nothing Like Lear, the play calls itself – are we to take the name at face value? As with the rest of the play, the title too teases us with the bind of what to reject and what to believe. The show draws from the story and characters of the Shakespeare’s Lear but fits no neat label of adaptation or parody.
Watching Rajat Kapoor’s Nothing Like Lear can be oddly unsettling – it is like participating in a game of one-upmanship between actor and audience, a game in which the actor is always a step ahead. As we walk into the auditorium before the play starts, we see a clown (Vinay Pathak) on stage making small talk with the crowd, assuring us "it hasn’t started yet". When that small talk segues into the actual act, we cannot tell. And so it goes on. The lone actor recounting his often rambling, seemingly disconnected stories, inviting the audience to fill in the blanks. We’re constantly questioning what’s happening on stage: is this an aside from the act, a part of the act, or a part of the act within act? We think we know, but keep learning every now and then that we we were mistaken.
The play has its moments of hilarity – and of horror – and they mix in unexpected ways. Funny anecdotes take on ominous meaning later on. Right in the middle of an intensely emotional scene the actor pulls a "teehee, gotcha!" trick on you.
A fascinating device: the unreliable narrator. Nothing Like Lear features, quite literally, the Clown, the tag for an unreliable first-person narrator who toys with truth and expectation. Our clown nods appreciatively when we help him with words he’s trying to recall (including the name of the bald, bearded guy who says thee-thou-thy), he reminisces about his past and his family, but we’d be wiser to take his words with a pinch of salt.
At the heart of the play is the unhappy relationship of the clown with his daughter. This transpires through some brilliantly conceived scenes in which the clown steps in and out of the narrator and actor roles, chatting with the audience one moment, speaking lines of immense anguish the next. It takes an exceptionally gifted actor to pull off this performance, and Vinay Pathak gives us a cracking one. There are two actors who take turns to perform the clown’s role [link] – Vinay Pathak and Atul Kumar. I’d love to watch Atul Kumar’s act too. Having seen him before in Hamlet The Clown Prince, I’m sure he’d rise well to the challenge.
Nothing Like Lear has the same DNA as Hamlet The Clown Prince – the signposts of spoofing Shakespeare, the clowns and the gibberish. But the resembles stops there. Hamlet was breezy, noisy, at times risqué, the kind of play you call a ‘laugh riot’. Nothing Like Lear isn’t out to be funny. The gibberish is toned down, so is the lightness. For all its gags it is at its core a tragedy. Rather different from what I’d expected, but a richly rewarding watch. Nothing like crowd-pleasing hit material, a lot like theatre in superlative form.