Hamlet: The Clown Prince, Hackney Empire, 26 March 2011
It was almost inevitable that a seemingly silly idea, Hamlet performed by a company of clowns, would turn out to be more intricate and complex than the average adaptation of the play.
The Company Theatre Mumbai’s production of Hamlet: The Clown Prince, directed by Rajat Kapoor, lasted just under two hours and excised many of the subplots.
The complexity derived partly from the way that the production created different levels of character, with the audience introduced initially to some clowns who then assumed characters within Hamlet.
At many points they seemed to break out of the play and revert to their clown characters, which amused and relaxed the audience as they thought they were watching something diverting and light-hearted.
But this ‘break’ from the world of the play was illusory: while apparently out of character the clowns continued to behave within the temperament of their Hamlet personas.
The production also established different registers of language, and then shifted effortlessly between them to surprise us with poetry when we were not expecting it.
This was throughout an exercise in creating a comfort zone for the audience and then spiking it right through with something daring and thought-provoking.
Something of the seriousness of the enterprise was signalled right at the start. To a background of sombre music, a solitary figure with hat and suitcase stood in a spotlight on a raised platform at the centre of the stage, while clowns rushed past adorning him with clothing and props.
The figure addressed us in a form of gibberish and seemed to relate the story of human civilisation from its earliest beginnings to the present day with a topical allusion to Libya.
The ‘gibberish’ that was a signature feature of the production was, of course, entirely understandable. Far from being meaningless, it was composed of a mixture of French, Italian and approximations of English words, peppered with standardised nonsense words such as ‘prochita’. This created a stream of intelligible language backed by helpful mime.
The purpose of this prologue seemed to be to acclimatise us to the lexical mix that was going to be used in the rest of the performance: a kind of fast-track induction into the language of the production. When it was finished the figure bowed respectfully to us and said “All this and much more can I truly deliver”.
After this prologue, the company of clowns entered and introduced themselves as their clown characters: Fido (Neil Bhoopalam), who played Claudius and the Ghost; Nemo (Namit Das), played Horatio and Polonius; Popo (Sujay Saple), who was the MC and Laertes; Buzo (Puja Sarup), as Gertrude and Fifi (Rachel D’Souza) who was Ophelia.
They pondered what show to put on and decided on drama, then specifically Hamlet by Shakespeare. Some of the clowns were dismissive, but Popo, the company manager, talked them into it.
The clowns launched into the first scene on the Elsinore battlements. We were told that Horatio was an educated man who was one of the original ghost busters. As one of the clowns asked “Who you gonna call?”
The clowns then broke out of their Hamlet characters back into their ‘real’ clown personas as bickering and disagreements within the group came to the fore.
Fido decided that instead of Shakespeare he wanted to do something involving dirty dancing and threw himself into the appropriate dance moves for that genre before being goaded back into the play. This was a consistent part of his clown character, which seemed to reflect Claudius’ role as usurper.
The story of the play was conveyed by a mixture of paraphrase, the original text and gibberish. After the visitation by the Ghost, Horatio said in plain terms that he would tell Hamlet about what had happened as it would surely interest him.
For the next scene we were introduced to the King and Queen. Buzo waved and said hello. She spoke with a French accent, used a lot of French and had a red love heart painted on each cheek to emphasise her coquettishness. The King referred to her as the ‘jointress, looking like a fortress’ playfully reworking the text to create a new joke.
Hamlet arrived. Or did he? Soso (Atul Kumar), the clown in the prologue, entered and apologised for his lateness, explaining in his clown persona that he had been delayed at Heathrow. He joked about England and London in particular, saying how disappointed he had been to find himself in the centre of the capital with its many fine theatres only to find that he had to travel further east to Hackney to find the venue they were playing.
He was none too happy to hear that he was supposed to be Hamlet and immediately began giving away the ending of the play. He told the audience that by the end of the play Hamlet died, the King died, the Queen died etc. as the other clowns rushed to cover his mouth and stop his flow of spoilers.
Forced to backtrack by the others, Soso began furiously asserting with deep irony that all those characters definitely did not die at the end of the play, which of course was further confirmation that he had originally been telling the truth.
We thought that we had been watching some light-hearted comedy with the clowns breaking out of their Hamlet characters to be ‘themselves’. Yet what did we see? We saw the clown Soso who was about to act the part of Hamlet get into trouble with the other clowns because of his rigorous devotion to the truth, descending into mordant sarcasm when forced to adopt the convenient lie imposed by those around him.
That, in a nutshell, is Hamlet. The core of his character had been imprinted on us while we thought we were taking a break and stepping outside the play, whereas the play had merely continued on another level. This was clever stuff indeed and a technique that recurred in the production.
Buzo/Gertrude commented that Soso would be the ideal clown to play Hamlet because he talked all the time but never did anything, which made the point in a more explicit way.
Back in their Hamlet characters, the King reminded Hamlet that his father had lost a father and so on before singing “It’s the circle of life!” in full Lion King mode, reminding the audience that it was basically the same story.
Rather like Patrick Stewart’s Claudius, this one had to be reminded by Gertrude of the name of Hamlet’s university at Wittenberg. Gertrude resorted to emotional blackmail to get Hamlet to stay at Elsinore rather than return, with loud sobbing and wailing.
The production suddenly shifted tone and we were right in the middle of the “too too solid flesh” soliloquy delivered as per the text with all the feeling of a “proper” performance.
Having teased us with paraphrase and gibberish, the production now delivered the raw, unadulterated Shakespeare. It sounded beautiful. The impact would have been felt even more keenly by anyone unfamiliar with Shakespeare or this particular play.
The arrival of Horatio prompted a paraphrased conversation with Hamlet about the way the funeral had given way swiftly to the marriage, and Horatio told Hamlet about the Ghost.
After a brief introduction to the character of Ophelia, who we learnt had been forbid access to Hamlet, we were back on the battlement with Hamlet and Horatio waiting for the Ghost.
As with almost all the scenes of the play, the rest of the clown company were present on stage and joined in to provide comment and encouragement.
There were more jokes about how the plot of The Lion King resembled that of Hamlet. But the appearance of the Ghost and attempts by the others to stop him following prompted an impassioned and textually accurate rendering of Hamlet’s “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me”.
Hamlet gave chase with both he and the Ghost running on the spot at opposite sides of the stage as in a cheesy film effect. This was interrupted by a long rambling story of how Hamlet pursued the Ghost over mountains, cliffs and stretches of water.
The Ghost was mute and had to explain himself in mime. This led to some hilarious misunderstandings as Hamlet guessed wrongly at the meaning of the charades. Frustrated by his enforced silence, the Ghost spoke through gritted teeth while miming the “serpent” that had stung him.
Once told the truth, Hamlet said he would think of nothing else and Ghost put his finger to his head as if to say “Remember me”.
Ophelia told Polonius how Hamlet had come to her in a mad fit and had walked away from her without looking where he was going. This gave Fido to another chance to demonstrate his dance skills by moonwalking backwards across the stage.
Instead of just one love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, several large sheets of paper were produced that purported to be love letters among the cast. Buzo relished reading out one letter’s reference to another clown’s “small pee-pee”.
Polonius was long-winded and appeared to break out of character to digress at great length prompting Soso to wrap a large amount of masking tape around his mouth, obliging him to mumble for the rest of the sequence.
This led into a discussion of Hamlet’s character, broaching such matters as whether he loved his mother too much (the Freudian interpretation) or whether with all his feminine dithering and weakness he was in fact a woman, at which point the Asta Nielsen fan in me sat up and starting paying attention.
The players were represented by the clown company itself and the players’ speech was performed as a song. The mention of the Murder of Gonzago caused Fido to lumber round doing a Godzilla impression and talk in mock Japanese.
This mood of levity was swiftly undercut as Hamlet began an excellent rendition of his “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. This was done as paraphrase but kept the references to him being pigeon-livered and lacking gall.
The sequence of events at the start of act three was reversed so that we first saw Hamlet’s anger at Ophelia, ordering her to get to a nunnery. He looked out at the audience and asked us why we bothered to “breed this”, pointing at us in disgust.
Ophelia dithered about leaving, causing Hamlet to remark that she could not make up her mind. He took this as an opportunity to paraphrase the “to be or not to be” speech, but make it about her ambivalence.
The Mousetrap was performed as a mime with Fido representing both Claudius and the murderer. The text was respected in places with the inclusion of phrases like “metal more attractive”, “country matters” and “frighted with false fire”. This was part of a gradual introduction of authentic Shakespearean language within a more accessible context of paraphrase.
Hamlet was informed that his mother wanted to speak with him whereupon he stood in a spotlight and swore to speak daggers but use none. Having given us a dose of authentic poetry, he broke off from it to swear at her for being a “bitch”.
Up on the central platform, Gertrude became progressively drunker as she sat taking swigs from a hip flask. Polonius secreted himself behind some thin side curtains brought on for the sequence and acted as an unwelcome prompt for Hamlet, constantly feeding him lines he already knew.
This was hilarious to watch and looked like another instance in which the clowns had broken out of character to give us laughs beyond the world of the play. But as Hamlet took his wooden sword and drove it under Polonius’ arm “killing” him we soon realised that we were firmly back within the story and that the comic pause had again been the play pursued by alternative means.
Meanwhile Gertrude was showing herself to be a flirt. She waved and toyed with a man on the front row of the audience, throwing him her garter. This in turn prompted a discussion among the clowns about the nature of love during which Gertrude berated men for their unwillingness to commit. They did not have a problem “making pom-pom” when it suited them but afterwards they suddenly needed their space.
The reappearance of the Ghost saw him blowing ‘ghost powder’ from the palm of his hand to create a spooky atmosphere. But Fido eventually ran out of powder and had to go off to fetch more. Returning with a large, fresh batch, he accidentally blew it all from his hand in one go.
Hamlet carried Polonius from the stage on his back. When questioned about the location of the body he sat down to relate a witty paraphrase of the worm-beggar-king paradox.
The action moved straight to Ophelia’s madness. She entered and immediately enquired “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” The line was striking in its effect coming after some extended clowning.
The other characters reacted to Ophelia’s condition. The King was deeply moved and launched into a version of his “my offence is rank” speech, pondering his guilt. Hamlet looked at Ophelia and said “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered”. The Queen, still on the platform, paraphrased Hamlet’s Yorick’s skull speech, noting that all human life was mortal.
Laertes, who had not appeared earlier in this edited performance, appeared in a spotlight to tell the King that he would be prepared to cut Hamlet’s throat in the church. The pair discussed their plot in paraphrase with the King saying he would need a back-up plan in case the poisoned sword failed.
Proceeding directly into the final duel scene, Hamlet danced with his mother before getting down to the fight with Laertes. In a medley of deaths, the queen was poisoned, the king stabbed by accident and Laertes killed when he and Hamlet dropped and then swapped lath swords.
Repeating the phrase that ended the prologue Hamlet stood in spotlight and said “This and much more can I truly deliver. The rest is silence”.
A production consisting of different levels could also be appreciated on different levels. Shakespeareans could relish the reworking of the play and relate it to standard performances. Children brought by their parents to see a clown show could also laugh at the comedy. And anyone unsure as to whether they could understand Shakespeare’s language would have found themselves warmed by the approachable nature of the production into appreciating some of its finest offerings.
This kind of innovative production is a perfect candidate for inclusion in the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival. It is to be hoped that we in the UK will get another chance to see it then.