>THE ILIAD: GREEK MYTHOLOGY IN KATHAKALI by Swadhin Productions

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 8 oct 2000
>time: 7:30pm
>venue: the wtc auditorium
>rating: ****1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>A CROSS-CULTURAL TROJAN HORSE

According to T.S. Eliot, all works of art, in order to be great, must seek their meaning from and be ensconced in the "tradition"."No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists" ('Tradition and the Individual Talent').

If we agree with Eliot that all works of art are haunted by the spirits of dead forefathers, Swadhin Productions' dramatisation of Greek poet and lyricist Homer's epic poem 'The Iliad' should not only invoke their supernatural presence but inevitably seek its approval from these spectres of authority. This production, however, overturns this dictum.

Presented as Kathakali, a traditional Indian dance form that is almost three hundred years old, the production brings about not only a unique meeting of two great cultures and traditions but creates an imaginative space, corporealised in performance, of an unknown dimension that fuses both Hindu mysticism and Classical mythology.

Kathakali, literally meaning "story-play", is a dance-drama that originated in the 17th century, a time parallel to Shakespeare, in a small South Indian state called Kerala. Kathakali can then rightly be said to be an Eastern equivalent of Shakespeare's plays, which fuse a kaleidoscope of art forms, for this Indian dance-form combines harmoniously the five art forms of literature (narrative), music, painting, acting and dance in an integrated and seamless matrix to tell the story.

>>'THE ILIAD is certainly a visual spectacle that awes and captivates. It is nonetheless alienating for those who are unable to comprehend its unique gestural language'

THE ILIAD dramatises one of Western canon's greatest epics, 'The Iliad'; the dance-drama enacts the middle books of this epic poem which narrates the renowned feud between Hector and Achilles.

The dance-drama begins with the meeting of Hector and Andromache after the former's return from the battlefield. This is followed by the conquests of Patroclus against the Trojans, which inevitably leads to his confrontation with and death at the hands of Hector. The two-and-a-half hour production ends with Achilles' cruel vengeance on Hector after the former's acquisition of Hephaestus' magical shield.

Imagine Shakespeare's dramatic action and soliloquies without words and you will come to understand the difficulty that is yet the beauty of Kathakali. Kathakali presents its story purely via a culturally specific kinesic code that is delicately interwoven with musical codes. From the quiet "soliloquies" of Hector and the magical visions of Achilles to the tense combats between the two, the dancers employ an extensive repertoire of facial expressions and gestures to narrate a tale that would have been told verbally in conventional drama. The entire story is presented via gesture, movement and expression; the music of the percussion, often accompanied subtly by chanting, then guides the viewer along by establishing the climaxes through an incessant drumming that parallels the tempo of the rising and declining moments of tension.

The telling of a Western Classic through Indian dance becomes a unique and exhilarating experience of cultural intersection [inter-borrowing/interaction]. Creator and Director Richard Tremblay manages to weave the gestures of Indian dance with Western sways and swerves. The expression "East meets West" is a phrase that calls to mind the novelties of fusion food and blond hair on Asian heads, and is perhaps a cliché that is insufficient to classify the cultural density of THE ILIAD. Rather, Tremblay's ILIAD exemplifies the phrase "East confronts West". The colonised now re-scribes and reinterprets the text of the coloniser in what can be seen as a post-colonial gesture of the overturning and redefinition of a "great" tradition. Homer's epic poem becomes unrecognisable when staged as Kathakali for Kathakali extracts the epic and heroic elements and transforms them into universals that can be identified across cultures. THE ILIAD reminds us that as much as Homer has his heroes and heroines, the Indian culture posseses its great traditions such as the Mahabharata. When staged, the Western epic is no greater than the Eastern.

Appreciated as performance, THE ILIAD is certainly a visual spectacle that awes and captivates. It is nonetheless alienating for those who are unable to comprehend its unique gestural language. But perhaps in that process of alienation, the text of the colonised severs its umbilical cord with the coloniser's. The haunting spectre of Homer is ignored as THE ILIAD manages to make strange to the western viewer what is scripted as an archetype of the great Western tradition.