The music swells. Underneath a single light, a clown is thrown into sharp relief. He begins to recite a sweetly comical, deeply incisive critique of progress – society’s one-dimensional idea of what it means to get ahead. When he finishes, with a modest bow, the audience applauds, enthralled that such wisdom should come from a clown.

Hamlet: The Clown Prince, the first of four Shakespearean plays directed by Rajat Kapoor, begins with a note the series will follow – riotous, queerly insightful and deeply human clowns making pithy observations in Gibberish and English.

Clowns have repeatedly featured as a stylistic device in Kapoor’s previous work, in adaptations of Waiting for Godot and Brecht’s Baal, a film titled Hypnothesis, and the play C for Clowns. Kapoor cannot explain his fascination with clowns, but he believes they imbue even somber Shakespearean characters with joviality, without stripping them of their emotional depth.

“Because Hamlet is a clown, he is able to take you to the depth of the emotion, and then break away freely and easily,” said Kapoor.

Kapoor did not want his clowns to speak colloquial English. Their stylised gibberish is the result of numerous improvisations born at the rehearsals for C for Clown.

A still from C for Clown. Image Credit: Rajat Kapoor
A still from C for Clown. Image Credit: Rajat Kapoor

“After we devised the language, we realised it was a very powerful tool.” he said. Kapoor cites Charlie Chaplin’s act in Modern Times as a probable inspiration for both, the clowning and the gibberish in his plays.

Kapoor’s Shakespearean plays are unified by common stylistic devices, but each production is visually distinct. Hamlet: The Clown Prince features a troupe of six clowns, who decide to perform the eponymous play, as their personal lives bleed into their performances. For a play about clowns, it is curiously scant on colour.

Kapoor says that the sobriety of Hamlet’s palette is a reaction to C for Clown, which was “full of colour”.

Although Kapoor intended to stage Oedipus Rex after his first Shakespearean play, he found it “too thin” and decided to work with King Lear instead. He set the Shakespeare’s script aside entirely, and began to dissect several themes running through the play. As a result, Kapoor’s play deviates considerably from the original script, and is called Nothing like Lear. After this play, Kapoor got hooked to Shakespeare, and began to think of a five part series of the bard’s plays.

Whats Done, is Done is meant to be a dark interpretation of Macbeth, complete with clowns that are meant to frighten as well as tickle. The latest play in the series, I Dont Like It As You Like It most resembles Hamlet: The Clown Prince. It features As You Like It as a meta-play, performed by a troupe of clowns who are forced to move to a forest after their rehearsal hall becomes unavailable.

However, unlike its predecessors, it bursts with colour.

Image Credit: Rajat Kapoor
Image Credit: Rajat Kapoor

“We had to visually separate the rehearsal room from the forest,” Kapoor explained. “So the forest has a lot of different colours.”

Each play, Kapoor said, begins as an image in his mind. Nothing Like Lear, which features just one clown, began with the image of “a Maharashtrian man, half sleeved shirt, travelling on a local train and going to the office”. The process of translating that image into a play is punctuated with trial and error. “The script comes out of the text, but everything else is up for grabs.”

A new language, without a script

While this is the only way he is comfortable working, Kapoor acknowledges that the combination of clowning, speaking in gibberish, and working without a script can become stressful for actors: “some actors trust me completely, some who are new to it get jittery, and a lot of them just leave halfway,” said Kapoor.

“It’s good to have an idea of the play and then fly with the improvisations we can see from it,” said Faezeh Jalali, who plays Mimi in I Dont Like It. The lack of a script and the constant demand for improvisations made the experience very enjoyable for Jalali. She was also comfortable with gibberish. “As long as you are true to the emotions of the scene and of these clowns going through something, language becomes secondary,” she said.

After directing the emotionally dense play 07/07/07, which is based on the written accounts of 19-year-old Iranian Rayanneh Jabbari’s days in a Tehran prison, the boisterous energy of clowns was a welcome change for Jalali. However, she did find it challenging to tap into the personality of the clown, and understand the nuances of her character.

Image Credit: Rajat Kapoor
Image Credit: Rajat Kapoor

Jalali believes that each actor has to find their own clown. “You don’t play a clown, you are a clown,” she said.

Namit Das, best known for his performance as Rishi in Wake Up Sid, plays young clown Nemo in Hamlet: The Clown Prince. Unlike Jalali, Das found the lack of a script challenging.

“You always want to find out what you are supposed to be doing in front of an audience,” he said. Although the gibberish came very naturally to him, he said being a clown was harder than it seemed. “It’s great when people laugh. But when they don’t, you want to be someone else,” Das said with a smile.

Trans-cultural theatre

In the play-within-a-play that the clowns stage, Malik’s Coco initially plays a character called Orlando. However, he winds up playing another role, Rosalind, when the head of the troupe asks all clowns to play characters of the opposite gender.

Since Rosalind masquerades as a man, Coco is now required to play a woman who is pretending to be a man. The gender play got muddling for Malik during one rehearsal, and his fumbling was retained in the show. He “played up the confusion” of the actor who doesn’t know which character he is supposed to be.

Since the lines are performed repeatedly in front of the same people at rehearsals, a lack of laughs from the gallery, can make actors second guess themselves. Malik and Jalali believe that actors fully know what works on stage only after a few performances.

“Hamlet is 180 shows old and we are still chopping things,” said Kapoor.

Play

Most of these plays have been performed in several countries, including Singapore, Indonesia and Israel. Das said that performing for people from different cultures, sensitises actors to the diversity among audiences. After successful stints in various countries, he said the cast was flabbergasted with the audience at Amsterdam, who would not laugh even 25 minutes into the show.

“We thought it was not working, but as soon as the show got over, the audience got up and clapped,” Das recalled. “They loved our work, they just reacted differently.”

Kapoor said that although the appeal of Shakespeare transcends cultures and mediums, it is hardest for filmmakers to adapt his work because the plays “don’t lend themselves to cinema easily”. He is awaiting a producer for his script Mathura Mein Tatathaiyya, which features a theatre troupe performing As You Like It in Mathura.

Kapoor said that while it takes a considerable effort to translate Shakespeare into contemporary theatre, he never begins with a complete picture of the end product. “If you go with your mind, you will only reach so far. But if you go with your imagination, you might reach where you never knew you could go.”

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