The Paradox of Mass Hypnosis

These are not pathetic clowns with great sad eyes or little dawdling duck-like movements, working up a lather of emotion for the whole dichotomy of a clown’s existence, ever ready to shoot upwards into bathos. No, we don’t have crying clowns here. Bonhomie is the creed. No circus clowns either, with large red noses or flying trapeze acts. They are not fleet-footed except when engaging in repartee.

In Hamlet The Clown Prince, Rajat Kapoor presents us with an assured piece of theatre that combines comic farce with an ostensible element of tragedy through the performing of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a play within the play by a set of rambunctious clowns with joie de vivre to spare. The play’s selling point, advertised by its promotional literature, is its delivery in ‘gibberish’ (and some say it’s Hebrew, and others, Yiddish — all sorts of rumors abound). This is a misnomer. There is a natural flow of query and response understood and spoken by the denizens of this realm. They get each other, there is a constant back and forth and the verbal scuffles could teach almost anyone a thing or two about one-upmanship. The characters don’t spend any time trying to make sense of the proceedings. Neither do we, we dive straight in, the concocted phrases become second nature, nothing ever descends into meaninglessness. It’s all very clever, and words need to sometimes come garbled across in what appears to be an effortless spiel. Therefore ‘gibberish’ is not quite the right descriptor.

This is a true ensemble piece. There are broader aspects to the comedy; slapstick rears its head on occasion. For instance, talcum powder is spilled onto the stage — a slippery surface always garners laughs. Charades are wonderfully put to use when the ghost of Hamlet’s father needs to impress upon him the circumstances of his death without uttering a word, as is the wont of all traditional spooks. Then there are sexual innuendos galore that seem to work quite well as part of a Venus and Mars dynamic between the clowns Soso (Atul Kumar) and Bouzo (Puja Sarup), who are star-crossed lovers, even if they also enact Hamlet and Gertrude respectively in the play within, an unlikely Oedipal mother-and-son pair if ever. Then there are popular references thrown in, like a rather lame running gag from The Lion King (which was also ostensibly based on Hamlet) and a mention of someone being manglik, which has the audience in thrall. All of it seems squarely aimed at evoking crowd reactions in most accessible ways but these elements are quite facile when placed in the context of the actual nature of this kind of theatre. There is a sense that although we have a whole audience caught up in the sway of a dazzling display of mass-hypnosis, the actual gags are falling flat on their faces. Gestures get the most laughs, not nuances. When Mr Kapoor panders to his audience he has them eating out of his hands, when he settles in for something more visceral they’re simply not engaged, maybe still under some kind of spell, but the choice bits are passing them by. The transition from performance to audience isn’t seamless. There are two planets here — the ‘drunks’ get a night out, and the actors find themselves a luminous showcase. They bring them in with bait, and hope they’ll return with the goods of the oceans. This can never be the case.

These are not pathetic clowns with great sad eyes, or little dawdling duck-like movements, working up a lather of emotion for the prized dichotomy of a clown’s existence, ever ready to shoot upwards into bathos. No, we don’t have crying clowns here. Bonhomie is the creed. No circus clowns either, with large red noses or trapeze acts. They are not fleet-footed except when engaging in repartee. When Soso announces, ‘In the end everybody dies!’ in that faux Italian accent, it’s almost as if he is foreshadowing a point of pathos. And there is one, a transfiguring moment of tender emotion between Hamlet and Ophelia that is sprung up on us quite unexpectedly. Rachel D’Souza as Fifi (diminutive for Ophelia) almost runs away with the show with her West Caribbean inflection and ferret-like feistiness. In Mr Shakespeare’s original the only clowns were grave-diggers speculating on Ophelia’s suicide, here Fifi is the definitive clown, her descent into madness is the play’s most affecting episode. Also looming is the scenery-chewing Puja Sarup as Buozo, although in her performance the whole act does waver from its chosen dictum because she is occasionally allowed to step outside the ensemble. This is probably because of her well-heeled standing in theatre circles — she has recently top-lined a production of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother. Ms Sarup is allowed a more lingering stop-over in the spotlight, but it does bring about a kind of pause to the action. This is not really a grouse because she does give in to her performance consummately and is a comedienne par excellence.

Neil Bhoopalam and Puja Sarup
Neil Bhoopalam and Puja Sarup

The play within the play is absurdist and lends itself quite easily to improv. The clowns  come up with tropes and tics, making things up as they go along, pulling the strings with lip-smacking glee. The timing is impeccable, giving Hamlet The Clown Prince the quality of madness, to which there always seems to be a well-etched method, all the while eschewing the conventional narrative for something much more spontaneous. But from a distance, you do feel you’re watching a performance not by a clown theatre company but by Mr Kapoor’s troupe. The seasoned performers bring with them the baggage of effortlessly passing off the tried-and-tested as something unrehearsed and free-form. You can see through the act, but you’re still thoroughly entertained.

Where does it all come from, one might ask? Did Mr Kapoor just conjure it all up from nowhere, draw it out from a top hat? Is this all really his hyperactive sub-conscious being allowed to spill over and create something subliminal? Or is it merely derivative? It does doff a hat to Molière at times. Author Martha Bellinger had pointed out that Molière “has been accused of not having a consistent, organic style, of using faulty grammar, of mixing his metaphors, and of using unnecessary words for the purpose of filling out his lines.” This is the way they do it here — the language used in different ways, the concoction of myriad accents. Buozo flails about like a Russian Pollyanna with a French accent. Fifi’s mastered the slang of the bordello. The only thing incongruous is Papa Ghost’s square Indian English accent. Maybe the actor (Neil Bhoopalam) couldn’t feign a stereotypical brogue well enough. A convent school inflection does always seem clichéd in the context of Indian theatre in English and it doesn’t ring true here either where everything else is a re-imagining, fresh as a breeze. But his is a bravura performance, and he seems to grasp physical comedy incredibly well, and laces it with a dash of sexiness. He has all the right moves if not the right articulation (although it is very ‘propah’). The death scene of Papa Ghost is a rare feat, and you half believe he’ll be called back for an encore and die once again, suspension of disbelief be damned.

Is the fluency of it all really just western theatre being mastered on an Indian stage? We’re not perturbed by the borrowing from the bard. Shakespeare has become so basic, so rudimentary that it’s universal now, not western or occidental, it’s local to any context. It is versatile in its uses, lending itself to a sense of being acculturated almost. Whereas the staging of it, the debauchery, the loudness of it all, the vaudevillian style evoke all kinds of other influences — Molière, elements of Italian dialect theatre and Commedia dell’arte. The masks for instance — well they are clown masks, but painted on like this was a Harlequinade.

Being derivative isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not pejorative since mimicry is the best kind of flattery. There are derived works we have great respect for. Hamlet The Clown Prince appropriates western elements so fluently that it is now a crown jewel on the Indian theatre scene, a marvel of our times. There are moral fables that need to be recounted ad nauseum and even if we cannot immediately enter Mr Kapoor’s head and break into his foundry of ideas, it’s not important because it doesn’t quite take away from the virtuosity of this piece. And there is also a lot here that is inordinately original — so much warmth emanates from the cast when an imaginary needle is used to stitch together emotions as it were; or when the prompters at the theatre put up a rib-tickling side-show that assumes centrestage proportions; or the scene involving Mr Kumar merely going through the motions, one action after another, right through to an imaginary strip-tease that has people transfixed and waxy-eyed. Hypnotized.

(from left) Namit Das, Sujay Saple, Rachel Dsouza and Puja Sarup
(from left) Namit Das, Sujay Saple, Rachel Dsouza and Puja Sarup

At times Soso is belligerent and makes fun of his audience. We can only presume he’s Mr Kapoor’s alter-ego, complaining about having to dilute the purity of his work with crowd-friendly invective or something ridiculous like Buozo’s skirt being pulled down. She’s not one to be cowed down by it though and baits some hapless man in the audience with her red stocking garters. Not really as audacious as red knickers maybe, but it will do. This has usually been a straight-laced audience after all, even if they’ve been lapping up The Vagina Monologues for years, but that’s considered respectable now, not prurient. There is a self-conscious bravado with which they subject themselves to this onslaught of interactive theatre. They cannot not revel in this kind of blood-letting, it’s just not done. This is not theatre for the bourgeoisie, or people who’ve just about arrived, not exposed to one-offs of this kind with any great consistency to develop a taste for what it actually is. They’re like British audiences, who are ever prepared to laugh their way through even the most dour production of A Doll’s House. The ‘drunks’ are not drunk literally. They’ve learnt to stand up for ovations (peer pressure, mainly) without summoning the requisite amount of applause that could cause the troupe to return for seconds, enthusiastic as they are only for the first few introduced characters in a line-up. This is a cool, hep, homogeneous, effectively Prithvi-ised audience, sold on culture, condoms and chai (sulaimani preferably).

The tragedy of Hamlet the Clown Prince is the self-importance of its patrons. There isn’t a cultural frame of reference in which it can be placed. The best theatre borrows from its audience, from what is local, indigenous, of the people. It doesn’t stand in isolation and preach new wares, or a new evangelism. This has the colloquial accents down pat, but they are from elsewhere. The milieu in which it exists, in which it’s created and performed and fluently mastered is not a reflection of what’s really out there here. Is this a kind of fringe theatre masquerading as a top-ticket show and pulling in the crowds who may have been spellbound by Ophelia’s pièce de résistance crazy-woman act, but that’s not identification or engagement. The question remains, what business do you have to set up your tent and put on your ringmaster outfit just raring to crack a whip or two, and there are lions, but only an illusory audience?

This was one of the first essays to be published on Stage Impressions, on September 13, 2010.

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