Kalki On Her New Play Lucrece And The Emotional Journey Of A Woman Dealing With Rape
Kalki Koechlin, an actor who is known for her experimental and cutting-edge performances in different genres (Margarita With A Straw, Skeleton Woman, What’s Done Is Done and more) and a woman who has often spoken out about sensitive issues close to her heart, will be seen on stage in Lucrece, the Indian adaptation of a Shakespearean poem – The Rape of Lucrece – that was written in 1594. The theatrical piece, directed by British director, Paul Goodwin, artistic director of The Shakespeare Edit, deals with issues that are universally relevant – patriarchy and sexual assault. In the contemporary Indian scenario where the #MeToo movement has gained momentum, a production that looks at an assault on a woman and the repercussions, gains added relevance. In the staged version of the poem, the raped woman’s voice is heard loud and clear, thus contemporising its appeal.
Excerpts from a conversation with Koechlin on the eve of the staging of Lucrece….
How has playing the titular role impacted you as an actor, and as a woman?
It’s been a tough month. I think the emotional graph in the play is a very difficult one. It goes through extreme trauma but also extreme fight and strength from this woman who is raped early on in the play. I’ve had to separate that from my life in some ways. And when I get out of rehearsals I need to go for a long jog or do some very different kind of activity to shake it off because it can get very exhausting and make you very low. But I think overall, it’s been a really incredible process.
In the beginning, there’s so much pressure when you’re doing a play like this – to feel the trauma and sadness of it, but it’s so important to also realise that there’s so much humanity and so much strength and so much post trauma. I mean, how do you find yourself again after something like that and how do you lift yourself back up? It’s been really interesting to discover all of that.
Earlier you have spoken about sexual assault and child abuse. Do you tend to draw from your past while performing?
I don’t draw from my past when I act. I am sure that all of my experiences in life have affected me as a person and the actor I am today. There’s no doubt about that. But I don’t consciously tap into my own losses or my own traumas to evoke that emotion. In the play, Lucrece is a different character who has gone through a very different experience from mine; I have to stay true to that character and I have to make that character my own. So, I think it’s very important to separate the two.
What are the challenges of rendering Shakespeare in this day and in this format?
There are lots of challenges. The first, of course, is simply the language. When I first got this play, I actually didn’t read it. I sent it to my assistant and I said, “Somebody has sent me some Shakespeare play, please read it for me” because the language was so difficult to tackle. And then when I read it, what excited me was the power of this female voice. I don’t think a lot of Shakespeare’s plays have a very strong female voice and so that was exciting. The language was really difficult and I realised that it’s harder to read Shakespeare than to listen to Shakespeare. I’ve been actually listening to a lot of Shakespeare’s texts performed by different people and I find that when it’s well performed, the meaning comes through a lot better than when you try to read the text. So hopefully, if we have performed well, that meaning will come across.
The second challenge is that Shakespeare wrote this in the Roman era. At that time the idea of honour and shame was very, very big. If you had been raped, you lost your honour and you were shamed. I think unfortunately that thought still exists in India. We see victim-shaming all the time and we still have women killing themselves because they think their life is over because they’ve been raped. In Lucrece, we have remained true to the original text and do not change the story – she does speak up about the rape but then she kills herself – because that’s the story Shakespeare wrote and it’s based on true events. But, the question is how do we, at the same time, contemporise it and not make it about shame? So, we’ve actually edited out a lot of the honour and shame verses and tried to make it about separating her personal life from her public decisions. She makes a public statement, changes a system and in her personal life, she feels the need to release herself from the oppression that she’s feeling. So that has been a challenge.
What message do you think Lucrece has for Indian women, especially in the present context? Each of the three actors plays the characters in the play, but we are also the narrators. We all begin as narrators and end as narrators. So, after the death of Lucrece, I once again become the narrator and I have a line which says “Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so, to slay herself, that should have slain her foe.” Instead of killing herself she should have killed the perpetrator. Obviously, we are not living in the Roman era, and I don’t think the solution is violence but we do have a kind of closing act by the narrators where we ask the audience to come with us and help bring justice and change, to listen to women and to what they have to say. So, I think that’s a really important lesson to take back. I hope it’s encouraging and hopeful for women in the audience. The other thing I feel is very impactful for women in the audience is, we have a moment where the two women in the play lean on each other with their sorrows, and then they pick themselves up. It’s the thing of sisterhood – the power of telling and sharing with people who understand your pain and to help each other pick up from that pain is really important.
As a woman who has ridden the uncertain tides of fortune, how do you think women can face their challenges and empower themselves?
You know, I can’t tell another woman what she should do. I think that’s been the problem of patriarchy – telling women what they should do. Each and every case is different. I can only say what I can do if I’m in a situation. For example, if someone comes to me with their story, I know I need to listen, I know I need not judge or be overly shocked, I need to just be a safe space. I can perhaps say go see a therapist or I can recommend people or places to talk but I also know it’s not my job to tell someone what to do. They have to find that in themselves. I think just supporting each other is what we need to do at the moment – listening and supporting.
You’ve worked in theatre, cinema and also done podcasts. Which have you found the most challenging?
Each is such a different medium that I wouldn’t dare say one is more interesting than the other. Theatre is definitely physically very challenging, sometimes I feel it’s like building a house because every day you’re doing your warm-ups and physical exercises, and no matter what happens you have to continue with the play. Halfway, you can’t try to look for an emotion. With films, the challenge is that you can’t hide from the camera – your eyes are your best prop. You have to feel from within. It’s very internalised and your eyes speak on the camera. And with podcasts it’s a very different medium because there’s no camera, there’s no audience looking at you, so it’s more about your connection with the person you are talking with. It is a much safer space. There’s nobody watching you and it’s more about really connecting to the person you are podcasting with.
Lucrece will open on the 28th of November and will have a run till the 9th of December at the Experimental Theatre at NCPA, Mumbai