Anyone will tell you that Shakespearean tragedy is intense stuff, right from the drama student to someone who’s never read a word of what the gentleman wrote. You save the laughs for the comedy. Hamlet is serious theatre.
Rajat Kapoor’s two-hour play tells you otherwise. The idea sounds ridiculous, blasphemous even if you’re a purist. Crack jokes? Make fun? Actually laugh right through the thing? It’s Renaissance-tragedy-meets-theatre-of-the-absurd as a ragtag bunch of clowns decide to perform “Hamleto”. They speak a mash of English and gibberish with heavily affected French, German and Italian accents, use expletives and let no opportunity at sexual innuendo go begging. The humour comes at each other’s expense, and often at that of the unsuspecting front-row audience. Later, you may not recognise the actor who played Hamlet with his face painted, but you will remember a particular pot-bellied man at whom Gertrude flung an undergarment!
The brief first scene is remarkable. In a five-minute fast-forward of sorts, characters flit around as Hamlet stoops under the weight of thoughts and circumstance. The narrative then begins with the clowns quarrelling over how to go about the whole thing. The grave story of Hamlet’s revenge, his indecision about his uncle’s crime, his spurning of Ophelia’s love and attraction towards his mother is played out as a nuthouse version. Lines are mixed up, portions are omitted, and characters digress into pop-culture references that span Michael Jackson to Lion King to Heath Ledger’s Joker from Dark Knight.
The cast is brilliant, with Neil Bhoopalan (who plays Claudius and Fido) being the pick. He has some of the funniest lines and does a mean moonwalk. The mishmash genre borrows heavily from burlesque and opera, and it helps that the cast has two outstanding singers.
The only criticism can be that if you’ve watched this production at an earlier time, you will find that the jokes, even the ones made to look impromptu, are largely unchanged. Clown Prince, however, is one of the wittiest scripts I have come across. And that’s made this production tremendously popular over the years (the second show of the night had the audience queuing up 40 minutes before the start). Through the madness, it yet manages to deliver the essence of Shakespeare’s Hamlet without assuming you know the premise.
And as you walk out into the madness that’s called Mumbai traffic, the honking cars and yelling rickshaws are the same as before. Only now you notice the element of absurd in it all.