In the costume store at the Globe theatre, Kalamandalam Haridasan hands me the glittering, ornate crown designed for King Lear - a small work of architecture which looks like a Hindu temple being swallowed by a greedy, bejewelled sun. Strapping it to my head, I suddenly understand why Kathakali actors have to undergo such lengthy physical training, beginning in early adolescence and sustaining them throughout their lives.
On stage, Kathakali actors loom larger than life, their livid, expressive make-up and bulky costumes elevating narratives to high drama, as well as occasionally reducing small children to tears. Even when they have removed the costumes, however, their physiques are arresting due to an exercise that they undergo from the start of their time with the company, bowing to a discipline which involves distorting the body frame. Annette Leday, one of the directors - who also plays Cordelia - explains that at the end of each session of intensive physical training, boys in their early teens receive a massage that involves the masseur walking over each part of the body, focusing on the area around the pelvis and the bottom of the spine until it eventually curves back, creating an entirely new posture. "The main point of this massage is to make the joints very supple. It's very painful for some at first, but it fits with the shape of the costume and the definition of the steps."
Even though they are portraying characters who have regularly stalked across English stages, it is necessary to stand completely outside Western preconceptions of rehearsal and interpretation of roles in order to understand what they call acting. Kathakali theatre evolved from south-west India in the 17th century, and was one of the first forms of non-religious theatre to flourish there. Despite its emergence at the same time as Shakespeare was penning his works, this is the first production to marry the two traditions.
The Bard would probably have some difficulty in recognising this version of his play because the tradition deviates from Western concepts by ignoring character development and instead creating a striking theatre of types. Emotions are conveyed by a synthesis of song, percussion and violently emotional choreography, which focuses on the extreme moods of Lear, and strips it of its Western psychology.
David McRuvie decided to adapt the play for Kathakali theatre because he felt that of all Shakespeare's characters, those represented in Lear would best mould themselves to the Kathakali tradition. Leday, who specialises in choreography that combines Western and Indian styles, had received extensive training from the Kathakali theatre company, and the two decided to collaborate. "The character in Kathakali theatre is really defined by what he looks like," says McRuvie, "and Lear is interesting because according to this tradition, when he takes his robes and ornaments off, he becomes another character."
Audiences standing in the Globe will be struck by the extreme masculinity of the Kathakali tradition: many of the aggressive dance steps are meant to convey an intense polemical virility, tandava. They will have to come to terms with the fact that actors speak through actions rather than words, and the emotions that would normally be diffused into dialogue now burn out furiously through their eyes. Watching them hurtle round the stage, it is no surprise to discover that the actors came originally from the Indian caste that produced soldiers. As this alien culture shows us Shakespeare Indian-style, half the frisson comes from the feeling that they have come not only to impress but to intimidate.
Globe Theatre, London SE1 (0171-401 9919) to 17 JulReuse content