This was my third Hamlet in a year with a running time under two hours, which is a trend I’m hugely appreciative of. This time it was a rare UK performance for Mumbai’s Company Theatre, with its brilliant and hugely entertaining take on the play through the medium of clowning.
Performed in English and “Ghibberish”, a highly articulate but nonsensical babble which continually interrupted the lines and underscored frantic mime, Rajat Kapoor’s production burlesqued Shakespeare with all the love and respect that informs the best parodies. Actors poked fun at the lines, the references, the structures and the style of the play, yet Shakespeare’s words provided an anchor that rooted the chaos in a meaningful structure, guiding the clowns’ own stories to a point.
The conceit was a troupe of clowns deciding to put on Hamlet instead of one of their more usual song and dance shows, with mixed results. Atul Kumar’s Soso was the star clown, a droll and often miserable creature who growled at the audience for laughing inappropriately and maintained a breathless sarcatic patter throughout. The ringmaster was Sujay Saple’s Laertes, an impresario desperately trying to keep the plot on track and jealous of his lead’s arrogance. Nemo, played by Namit Das, was the frustrated-actor-turned-clown who wanted Kumar’s role, and kept thrusting himself into the limelight. Puja Sarup’s Buzo was Soso’s wife, a heavy drinker and operatic diva who couldn’t resist making snipes at her husband; and Fifi (two names were listed in the programme, Kalki Koechlin and Rachel D’Souza, though I don’t know which of these was tonight’s actor) was the new addition to the troupe, a playful innocent with a temper. Finally, Fido (Neil Bhoopalam) was the Clown among the Clowns, a lively and good-natured buffoon with a plethora of contemporary references, some funky dance moves and a tendency to lapse into modern colloquialisms.
The performance of Hamlet by these clowns was hugely truncated, and often in the form of commentary that said more about the clowns than about the characters. Most explicitly, Soso and Buzo’s marital discord lent a very specific inflection to their performances as Hamlet and Gertrude, with Buzo accusing Soso loudly of lacking commitment (cf Hamlet’s indecision) and the rest of the cast commenting loudly on “Hamlet’s” inappropriate love for his mother. Polonius’s verbosity, meanwhile, became an extension of Nemo’s professional frustration, an attempt to drag out his scenes for as long as possible. One of the most effective clowning moments came as Hamlet sneaked up behind Polonius and wrapped gaffer tape around his face, clamping his jaw up and forcing him to perform in mime for several subsequent scenes.
The production started with the lights slowly coming up on the figure of Hamlet, standing in a spotlight in full clown make-up and holding a briefcase which he kept throughout the production (the impression being of the itinerant traveller). The other cast members emerged from the shadows to throw dust in his face, add flowers to his lapel, slap him etc. (very reminiscent of U2’s Numb, actually) in a montage sequence of visual motifs that would recur throughout the play. In a stunning sequence of Ghibberish, with enough English thrown in to give a sense of structure, Hamlet then proceeded to monologue the entire story of the play. As an induction, this witty sequence acted to draw the audience into the play’s language and curious means of communication. The unintelligible words became a communicative bridge, creating a dialectic of active interpretation with an audience that relied on a shared willingness to find meaning.
Knowledge of Hamlet was presupposed, and made explicit when Soso arrived late for the play itself, citing the difficulty of finding Warwick Arts Centre and being distracted by the centre’s director. Critiquing the other clowns’ choice of play, he offered a series of ‘spoilers’ to the audience, which the others attempted to counter by accusing him of lying “It’s a happy play!” Even once the play itself had begun, the company freewheeled through the plot, pointing out to the audience how quickly they were doing it and briefly mentioning the scenes (inevitably involving Polonius) that they had cut out. There was no Fortinbras, no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, no gravedigging and very little of Laertes; Hamlet here primarily offered a structure for looking at simple relationships of love and family.
It was in Hamlet’s relationship to the women that the play’s heart was revealed, albeit always with an undertone of self-mocking laughter. The dynamic between Soso and Buzo was affectionate and abusive, and the latter’s descent into incapable drunkenness had its moving elements. By the closet scene, she was no longer capable of remembering her lines and instead began flirting with audience members, much to Soso’s annoyance. Her attempts to find a sozzled dignity in Gertrude’s regality were particularly entertaining, while also giving Hamlet a genuine barrier to re-engagement with his mother, whose loyalties between position and maternal responsibility were problematically divided. With the innocent Ophelia, on the other hand, a more romantic strain was introduced. The two saw each other across the stage, the lights turned to red and the two began walking towards each other in slow motion. As he reached her, without missing a beat, Soso slid his briefcase onto the floor and used it as a step to draw level with the much taller Fifi’s face for a tender kiss. This was the beauty of the clowning aesthetic – it allowed for moments of true pathos without ever descending into mawkishness or irony; the absurdity of people was foregrounded in the kindest possible way.
Fido was the clown who most embraced the comic metatheatricality of the enterprise. Accompanied by his pet egg (which hatched partway through into a chicken glove puppet), he laughed at himself constantly, breaking out into dance and controlling the apparatus of the theatre (for Claudius’s plot with Laertes, he shouted “Conspiracy light!” and ran into the obedient spotlight that appeared). His Ghost was forbidden from speaking, and so he instead performed in a series of dance manoeuvres and a game of charades to communicate his intentions. His constant references to pop culture included extensive discussion of The Lion King’s relationship to Hamlet and self-conscious quoting from The Dark Knight, drawing attention to his Joker-ish make-up.
To describe the joking, however, does a disservice to a production which fell or rested on rapport. A hugely appreciative audience engaged wholeheartedly, warming to the clowns’ ribbing and embracing the chaos. Whether it was Polonius getting bored and wandering off the stage instead of pretending to be dead; a random poll of the crowd to ask “what’s your be-or-not-be dilemma?”; or Hamlet enjoying the fact that the rest of the cast had to be frozen in position while he rambled on in soliloquy, the entire piece was built around a shared willingness to entertain and enjoy that relocated Hamlet within the storytelling mode adopted by Two Gents in their Zimbabwean Hamlet a couple of months ago. If the play is now being rediscovered as a series of recognisable and universal motifs that serve to authorise and structure new stories and improvisations, that can only be a good thing in my eyes.
This wasn’t all about chaos, however. Fifi’s Ophelia was beautiful in her madness; she performed simple magic tricks, revealing flowers from her sleeve which she then threw down to audience members (complimenting them on their catching ability). As the rest of the cast watched and cried out, she then slowly kneeled down for her drowning, the stillness of her body a startling contrast to the pace elsewhere. A similar image closed the play. After a frenetic sword fight, the stage was littered with bodies, and Hamlet was once more standing alone. Gesturing to the bodies around him (who glugged, burped or twitched appropriately), Hamlet pointed out the futility which, he argued, had been present from the beginning. As the lights slowly faded, he reminded us what he had promised to tell us and, with nothing remaining, “the rest is silence”. Followed immediately by a chaotic, clowning curtain call, the juxtaposition of stillness and silliness remained the production’s most powerful aspect, reminding us once more of Hamlet’s inherent metatheatricality and continual ability to be reappropriated.