Clowning Around With Tragedy

Great literature guards its secrets. Which means that some of the world’s best stories are also some of the most undemocratic, as they’re told in intimidating language ridden with layers of meaning. Synopses don’t help either: too much gets lost in translation.

“Hamlet The Clown Prince”, therefore, is a spunky approach to unlocking a celebrated tragedy in a way that connects with everyone, ranging right from Shakespeare aficionados to the audience members who believe ‘Iambic pentameter’ would make a great name for a rock band.

This version is really about enabling access. About taking a text that’s relevant to only a section of the public, and pointing out why its compelling story, rife with emotion, is as relevant today as it was in the 1600s when it was written in a completely different social atmosphere and political climate.

It helps that the clowns unapologetically begin the play by dispensing with Shakespearean language. “You say thee, thou, thy — the audience will die!” There are also plenty of nods to familiar popular culture, hilarious when juxtaposed with tragedy. Take the entrance of Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend, in the eerie ghost scene. The clowns sing “Who you gonna call: Horatio” to the Ghostbusters’s tune. Or Hamlet replacing the King’s “How is it that the clouds still hang on you” with the Joker in Batman’s now cult-line — “Why so serious?”

Funny-faced and sad-eyed, these endearing clowns serenely unlock, cheekily re-craft and cheerfully re-tell the story by hand-holding the audience and guiding them into the play’s core. Although the production’s stated to be in gibberish, in reality only chunks of it are. The rest is an impudent melange of choppy English rendered in Italian and French accents.

Director Rajat Kapoor and his cast’s greatest achievement is staying faithful to the play, while upturning the text. Managing to be irreverent without descending into the realm of yet another Shakespeare-inspired spoof.

With very basic props, the focus is on six clowns in appropriately outrageous costumes and makeup. Their over-the-top eccentricities, Chaplinesque slapstick and often melodramatic acting is in sharp contrast to the minimal, but cleverly manipulated lighting and sets, making for heightened drama. Seeing how the production works on edgy contrast, it will probably benefit from a few cuts, since it tends to meander in parts.

The clown troupe simmers with personal emotion swinging erratically between love and hate, often resulting in them forgetting about the play and bickering between themselves. It’s to the credit of the actors that they’re so comfortable in their confusing on-stage skins, considering they’re playing passionate people playing histrionic clowns playing characters in tragic Hamlet.

The lady clown playing Queen Gertrude, for instance, is still sore about having been dumped by Hamlet, who breaks off from a soliloquy to complain “she’s always bringing the bedroom to the stage.” She later gets back at him by sitting on a blameless, and clearly startled, member of the audience, naughtily giving him both her phone number and flaming red garters. The fourth wall is, in fact, breached constantly, as the clowns alternate between picking on the audience and asking them to mediate in their squabbles.

However, what stands out are the unadulterated blasts of pain and dark emotion, which seem starker than ever in contrast to the reckless tomfoolery. Writer Paulo Coelho once said ‘The funniest people are the saddest ones’. “Hamlet The Clown Prince” is funny. It’s also achingly sad.

(“Hamlet The Clown Prince” was staged in Chennai at Museum Theatre as part of Prakriti Foundation’s Hamara Shakespeare Festival.)


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