18 AUGUST 1967, Page 17

Blood red eyes


Short of being shot from a gun, I can think of no more exciting entry on stage than the thimnokAa, the Kathakali 'curtain-look' cur- rently on view at the Saville. Two minions hold up a vast coloured curtain; behind it we are conscious of a creature stamping with belled feet, we glimpse a haloed headdress turning, and suddenly a silver-clawed hand grasps and tears at the top of the curtain. Gradually the demoniac and terrible face of an evil god is revealed, fringed with a multiple frill of white rice-paste, wearing a thick impasto of red and green ;nag:tillage. 0-es flashing and crimson. When the curtain is finally removed we see him in all his glory, huge skirts billowing like a crinoline below his red and gold jackets, ornamented and tinkling, crowned with a hat that combines pagoda and halo, and with a mane of hair hanging down his back. From behind this might he a demented Hungarian peasant woman en 4nende toilette; but from the front he is all demon, and fearful to behold.

This 'curtain-look' serves to introduce each principal character in the drama; good or bad, each prepares himself, and us, by establishing his presence before embarking on the ritual of the action. Ranged behind him on the stage are the drummers and vocalists who are respon- sible for intoning the narrative and marking its rhythmic basis: the actors mime or dance the heroic tale in a silence broken only by grunting cries. The dancing may strike our western eyes as Jimited in its range of leaps and capers, but the gestures. that continual and swift sequence of madras-- infinitely graceful, infinitely reveal- ing hand movements--and the facial mime are both extraordinary. It is part of the Kathakali artist's lengthy training to gain complete con- trol over his muscles: the eyes must flash and flicker, the brows curl and twitch, in a way not seen here since Grouch() stopped ogling Margaret Dumont. The slightest muscular con- traction must, and does, speak volumes-from the calm beauty of the hero, Rama't gaze in a scene with his wife to the demon Maricha's eyebrows signalling 'w hatever will the boy do next?' as his villainous nephew plots Rama's downfall.

At the Saville (does the management main- tain that curious gloom in the auditorium so that we shan't notice how decrepit it is?) we are seeing Kathakali for the first time in its pure form. Dating from the sixteenth century, indigenous to Malabar, it is a dance-drama drawn from the great Indian epics, telling mar- vellously convoluted talcs of kings and gods and demons with great simplicity of staging: and a gaudy complexity of manner. Its expreS- sion is ritualistic: everything—stance, make-up, movement—is stylised, but if you can accept the formal patterns of the old-style Hollywood western, this older-style eastern should present few difficulties. Goodies wear green faces, bad- dies have red streaks and wear white flower- bobbles on their noses; battle, argument, love and death are shown through a hallowed and unchanging vocabulary which has miraculously retained the impact of the initial emotion. In the heroic history of the Ramayana which comprised the first programme, the death of the bird-king and the squabble between two monkey princes are passages of high tragedy and higher comedy that are as immediate and touching as anything in our own theatre.

It says much for the grandeur of the style that it is not simply the splendid fantasy of the costumes that grip our attention; the amazing complications of gesture and the interplay be- tween the characters are fascinating. The -evening may have its longueurs—I found the 'expository parts of the Ramayana, even in the severely edited version we are shown, intermin- able—but these fortunately come in the first -half; after the interval the action is faster, and entirely compelling: gods, demons, animals and heroes speak to us direct.