• Pantomime
  • Based on the play by William Shakespeare
  • Directed by Rajat Kapoor
  • Hackney Empire Theatre, London
  • Review by Urvashi Vashist
  • 25th March 2011

In what becomes a hallmark of Rajat Kapoor’s production of Hamlet Clown Prince, the opening is hypnotic, quizzical, infinitely suggestive, a cross-hatch of razor-sharp awareness and blithe merriment, and wholly, wholly insolent. Atul Kumar, a.k.a. Hamlet, alias Soso, stands spot-lit on a darkened stage, watering pointed nonsense with words he dares you to take seriously: man, family, progress, apprehension, angel, progress, imagine, god, Man, Man. But surely this isn’t Hamlet’s soliloquy? Fifi and Fido, Nemo and Buzo and Popo pelt him with paper snow and sweet-smelling talcum powder; he mimes playing cricket and driving a car, then turns about to fling “Pakistan! Afghanistan! Libya! Japan!” at you. So when he says “Elsinore” and you believe him, the joke’s on you. Wishful thinking never yet contravened a pre-written ending: “Everybody dies.”

If this is Hamlet, it is one bounded in a nutshell. The actors’ most expansive gestures—Fido/Claudius’s lithest and most vigorous display of ingenuous vulgarity, Buzo/Gertrude’s most (un)melodious shriek, the slickest, widest spin of Popo’s cane, and the splendid swordplay (“very well-rehearsed,” says Fido)—nevertheless buzz with some nervous, violently-controlled emotion, reflecting the contraction and truncation of Shakespeare’s text. “Nothing’s working,” Soso snaps; “There’s no justice in this world,” wails Nemo; is “Don’t touch me!” Gertrude’s or Buzo’s constant refrain? The latter’s silent conniptions as she knits, a clown-faced Madame Defarge foregrounded by her position (down-stage and house left) even as Popo claims centre-stage and blusters, are insidious, shocking. The poignant inner lives of these actors—pale-faced clowns suffering heartache, huddled and whispering when not called upon to entertain—are unfurled in plain view, played out and upon by their fellows and by the audience; they are hidden only by the spectators’ deliberate blindness, or inattention. Is that Hamlet encumbered with Polonius’s corpse, or Soso weighed down by his very earnestness, his desperation that the laughing audience would “really, imagine”?

A review which does not acknowledge the whole-hearted lightness of being perpetuated by The Company’s performance would be doing them—ironically—a serious injustice. The relentless, clever, improvisational comedy makes for a side-splitting ninety-minute experience through which no lapse of concentration is either permitted or forgiven. The actors’ sprightly wit infuses the already dynamic genre with an additional helping of adventure: the script seems mutable and mobile, adaptable to every transient exigency, able to exploit any, momentarily perceivable, thrilling nuance engendered by interaction with the audience, open to creative insight or whimsy. And finally, no appraisal of the ensemble’s performance can afford to ignore the simultaneous, apparent fluidity of physical composition, and its rigorous precision. Quite apart from the animated, colourful, seemingly impulsive patterns of movement, characterisation in Hamlet Clown Prince seems largely a function of the distinctive, idiosyncratic choreography that specifies, marks and defines identities. Individuals with masked, painted faces are, paradoxically, merely “words, words, words” and through the gaudy reference points of motion, quintessentially themselves in silence.

“All this and more can I truly deliver,” declares Hamlet Clown Prince. You’d better believe it.

About The Author

Profile photo of Urvashi Vashist

Urvashi is currently revising her thesis on Reading (through) Virginia Woolf: an assessment of, and experiment with, her afterlife as a literary icon; in addition to Plays To See, she has written entries for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism and is preparing articles for submission to sundry academic journals. She has been a tutor for ten years, at the brilliant club since 2010, and was most recently employed at the Creative and Support Trust for Women, London.

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