Clowning with Hamlet

After much debating about venturing out in the hottest part of the day in May in Madras, I went to see, The Company Theatre’s Hamlet The Clown Prince last Saturday (May 18th). Madras does not have just a summer. It has summer squared. The blinding heat time during May is locally called Agni Nakshatram or the fire star. This year the days under the fire star are from May 4th to 28th. Hamlet was recommended by a good friend of mine who happens to be a playwright herself. My love of theatre conquered the 40 degree heat that was burning Madras. So off I went to see the famous Rajat Kapoor play at 3:30 pm in the afternoon at Music Academy.

I had some idea about the clown trope having seen Rajat Kapoor’s C for Clown many moons ago at IIT, Madras. Since I was reading experimental theatre then, I totally loved the way the play spilled over the proscenium.  Then, I saw Nothing Like Lear last year, which was again Kapoor bringing Shakespeare, the Clown, and a story from Bombay all in one play. So I knew what to expect. But what I didn’t know was how effective it was going to be.

The play opens with a frame narrative, a group of off-duty clowns have gathered together to decide what their next production is going to be. They start off with a comic introduction where each clown is introduced and their signature act hinted at. One of the clowns, Soso, is missing from this picture. He is a gap that will have to be filled. Soso (the outstanding Atul Kumar) walks in late, nearly 20 minutes in to the act and explains that the Chennai traffic and the construction of the metro are to be blamed, along with a fat lady who didn’t allow him to enter the theatre. This reference to the specific theatre went down very well with the predominately college audience. A rapport was created. (It would be interesting to see how the audience in Edinburgh or London would have reacted to this gag.) From here on, I knew that the audience would always support Soso. He was the – for want of a better word – the hero of this play. This is important because later on in the play, he displays many unhero-like characteristics and yet his stature as the hero will not be challenged. All this before even Hamlet has been mentioned.

It is – unsurprisingly – Soso’s idea to stage Hamlet and to star as Hamlet in Hamlet. There is much opposition in the beginning. But the clowns give in. The reasons for the opposition become clear as the play moves on. Nemo (the nuanced Namit Dass) who plays Polonius has his eye on the main role of Hamlet. At certain parts in the pay, he prompts Hamlet and sometimes even says his lines for him, much to Soso’s annoyance. Buzo (the delightful Puja Swarup) one of the female clowns, who also plays Gertrude, was at one point in time romantically involved with Soso, has her own problems with Soso. At one time, Soso says, “She is always bringing the bedroom onto the stage!” This also impinges on the Hamlet that they are trying to stage. The other female clown Fifi (the vulnerable Rachel D’Souza) who also plays Ophelia has no definitive agenda of her own but she is trying to curry favor with the director Popo by pointing out Soso’s ironic messages to the audience. Fido (the entertaining Neil Bhoopalam) is like the anarchic force in the play constantly breaking out into sudden references to popular culture (The Dark Knight, Ghost Busters, Michael Jackson). At other times, he is either lost in his own world thinking about his blue egg, or his dancing, or coming up with one-liners that provide comic relief. It sounds odd that one needs comic relief in a play about clowns. However, the drama between the clowns playing themselves was so intense that a comic relief was required. The director is Popo (the able Sujay Saple) who also plays the role of Laertes and is appropriately seen with a stick to signify his director status. Soso is always challenging Popo’s authority. So do the other cast members but not as much as Soso. This pushes Popo to always be in damage-control mode, cutting short long clown gags, longer asides, and bringing the clowns back on track from playing themselves to playing the characters in Hamlet.

Soso breaks off from his comic persona from time to time to his serious Hamlet persona. Almost always that took me by surprise: as if the line between comedy and tragedy is not very well defined. The actors switched from playing themselves to playing the characters in Hamlet with such fluidity and pace that it was at times a bit overwhelming. But that said, this switch was rather dexterous and quite difficult to pull off.

Hamlet – almost anyone would agree – is not particularly suited for the comic stage. But I think the director wanted to bring his two favourite ideas together. It was an unexpectedly fruitful juxtaposition. Comedy has been described as the gap between what is expected and what is/happens. Rajat Kapoor and his able actors, specifically Atul Kumar who played Soso/Hamlet sought to explore this gap. The fact that an opposition (a tragedy) can be fit into it is to their credit.

The most obviously different part of the play was its language. (Even the ticket declared that it was a play in English and Gibberish.) Using Gibberish adds a certain dimension to the play. It decenters language and breaks it up so that new ideas or combinations burst forth. In this, the play excelled.  However, this Gibberish sounded either like faux Italian (in Soso’s case) or faux French (in Buzo’s case). Either way, there was not difficulty in understanding what the characters were trying to say. I wonder how Gibberish Hindi or Tamil or Gujarati will sound.  Is it easier to speak Gibberish Italian or Gibberish French rather than it is to speak an Indian equivalent? I am tempted to talk about the politics of language at this point but I doubt that was the intent at all. So I will let that be.

The trope of the clown itself is a non-Indian concept. At least the image of the clown is: the one that pops up in my mind when I say the word, clown. I doubt if it would work in an Indian setup. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong.) You could argue that the court jester – like say Tenali Raman – was very much an integral part of Indian history and one could possibly take inspiration from him. However, the court jester is closer to Shakespeare’s fool than the modern-day clown. I think Rajat Kapoor does not go that far back for inspiration.  He is perhaps influenced by clown-like figures of Charlie Chaplin and Raj Kapoor, who himself channeled Chaplin. You can say Rajat Kapoor is in good company. Picasso also went through a clown period himself. Many of his paintings of the Rose period focused on circus performers and clowns. It’s possibly the transgressive quality of the clown that appeals to an artist. The clown is never at the centre but always at the periphery. The point of view from the periphery is always closer to the truth.

Hamlet the Clown Prince is worth the watch – maybe more than once – because of its exploration of a well-known trope, excellent acting, and experimental ideas.

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