After Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and the Reduced Shakespeare Company, comes Rajat Kapoor’s Hamlet the Clown Prince. Fresh from Mumbai and a clutch of Mahindra awards, this play takes the absurdism and artistic engagement with the bard of the former, and the energetic comic reshuffling of the latter, to create a winning, grinning, clowning hundred minutes, in which the bard becomes flies to wanton boys and girls, who expertly play with us for their sport.
The characters deliver lines in a mixture of English and gibberish; a sort of anti-Esperanto veering into molto rapido pidgin Italiano and apparently Swahili, which frequently results in the breakdown of language, lost intentions, and comic gaps. It is delivered above the heads of crowd at points. making great performative salute to the play’s intention to demystify Shakespeare, of coming down from the lofty language and giving us instead a jocund paratext, reframing the bard in friendly and more direct terms. In drawing attention away from the language the play foregrounds the characters’ bodies and actions, and the Bloomian solution of activity and inertia that Kapoor is keen to get across.
Which works chiefly because the players are remarkably good, and testament to their skill is that suddenly clowning becomes something quite delightful in their hands: not some harrowingly dull template for children, or an anchor for cerebral comics to set their stall against, but something entirely more vernacular and refreshing. What we get is the genuine everyday sense of clowning around with your mates, expertly played. Neel Bhoopalom steals his scenes with glottal aplomb as Fido, wandering out of his character of Claudius to deliver uproarious Lion King references, Puja Sarup’s Buzo hiccups and squawks with precise comic range as Gertrude, and Namit Das’s fluttering voice was used to expert and heartbreaking effect.
Of course where Stoppard sets up his story as occuring within Hamlet, having Shakespeare’s play working in real-time asitwere, here time and space is collapsed into the absurd brew of the clowns. This puts pressure on the play’s reading of the text, which ultimately comes up a little safe, and didactic – the gender discussion and reference to progress and achievement may play better on Indian shores. And despite Atil Kumar’s Soso (who plays Hamlet) bringing notable sadness, the lines in his face and his slightly weary surety, really do convey the weight of ages behind the grin, the play has difficultly in moving from its default setting of rambunctious debunkment, to seeking pathos in Shakespeare’s own text, which rides in with all seams showing.
It’s not often you hear repeated references to Hamlet’s tiny penis, or a Shakespeare character on the brink of decision say “oh fuck that”, or see a body-popping ghost, or Godzilla in the play-within-the-play. But this play-around-the-play, what the company calls “mucking about with Shakespeare”, is punchy fun, instinctually comic, and pleasingly accessible to those for whom the bard’s language is funny-as-in-weird, rather than funny-as-in-lol.