Hamlet the Clown Prince

Written and devised by the company

Company Theatre, Mumbai

Hackney Empire

(2011)

Review by Howard Loxton

A multi-layered piece of theatre this, with actors playing clowns playing Shakespeare or at least their restructured version of Hamlet based on their own idea of the plot and semi-accurate chunks of the actual script. The cast, some red-nosed and all in white-face, seem to be making it up as they go along. Since they have being playing this piece now since 2008, collecting prizes for best play, best actor and best director at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards in 2009, I wouldn't be surprised if there was quite a lot of improvisation and ad-libbing going on, for they must now be very familiar with it. Are they in fact re-devising each performance? Sometimes their mayhem seems real rather than cleverly controlled confusion. That may be a compliment to their skill but do they really want to make the audience quite as uncomprehending as they sometimes made me?

The show opens with a figure holding an suitcase, dimly seen beneath an overhead spot. Other performers come forward giving him things, adding them to his costume or perhaps taking something from him and he talks in gibberish - there are hints of several languages but nothing that makes sense. It turns out later that this is the character Soso but for the moment he disappears and the other clowns decide they are going to put on the play of Hamlet. They argue over who'll play what and have already begun their show when Soso turns up with excuses. He has had problems at Heathrow, the theatre wouldn't let him in - they said the play had started. He's a little fellow, at first I thought he looked an elderly chap (but perhaps the actor is just very good at tiredness, he looks more fresh-faced later) and very unlikely casting for the title role but that's what he demands and the rest give in - he gets it. Is this the old situation of the actor manager playing the best role no matter how unsuitable? At least it turns out that he knows much more of the script than the others!

In about an hour and a half we then get their version of Hamlet, some characters and sub-plots cut but with the essential elements of murder, revenge and procrastination. To follow what is going on it would certainly help the audience already to know Shakespeare's play. I went with someone who did not, who had never seen it: they asked me to outline the plot beforehand. That apparently helped a little but they still weren't very certain what was going on - but I know it backwards and often I wasn't either, swamped by motor-mouthed gibberish.

Since the show comes trailing plaudits I wondered whether perhaps my lack of comprehensive may have been at least partly due to the venue. Some of the playing seemed to be to the front rows with any subtleties not coming much further visually or in dialogue, while other performances were resoundingly effective.

Clearly some of the humour is in these clowns getting things wrong or in the very different take that they have on the story, but the pleasure of the show comes from the playing of particular actors and from especially effective moments.

Neil Bhoopalam's Fido is a particular delight. Fido plays Claudius but he is also Old Hamlet's ghost, hurrying to get into the spot that marks his shifts of position and having great fun playing charades to get his message over to his son. There is Namit Das's Nemo, as Polonius, insisting on playing his death scene right downstage, no hiding behind an arras. Rachel D'Souza as Fifi as Ophelia snatches blossoms out of the air in her mad scene and slowly subsides to the stage as she sinks into her drowning.

There is a point when The Murder of Gonzalo (Shakespeare's Mousetrap play) looks like being turned either into Agatha Christie or .Japanese horror classic Godzilla, and another occasion when Hamlet's character is explained as the same as Simba with a reminder that The Lion King and Hamlet are really two versions of the same plot.

There is Puja Sarup as Buzo (who oplays Gertrude and the Player Queen) and Fido as the Player King declaring their excess of love across the stage and a lovely touch when little Hamlet rushus up to Ophelia with the suitcase that he takes everywhere, deftly slips it in front of her and stands on it to bring himself to head height.

Fortunately there is enough to enjoy to make up for the longeurs when the cast seem to be having more fun than the audience - director Rajat Kapoor should really get out the scalpel but with the occasional revelation of a rich unaccented speaking voice or a moment of great singing I was tempted to wish that those performers were in a straight production rather than this one, cleverly though it is constructed.

Until 26th March 2011

Peter Lathan reviewed this production in Newcastle