Shakespeare and clowning

Shakespeare and clowning

By Jo Caird 21/03/11

Rajat Kapoor is a renowned director of both theatre and film in India. His most recent theatrical work, Hamlet the Clown Prince, is currently on tour in the UK. Here he tells us about using clowning to open up one of Shakespeare’s densest plays...

I think everybody wants to do Hamlet at some point in their lives – all actors, all directors.

What is it about Hamlet? I don’t know; I can’t figure it out. But yes, there is a pull. I don’t actually like doing texts – except Shakespeare maybe – so for the past 10 years I’ve concentrated on “creations”, pieces devised by a company of actors. To do Hamlet for me was to learn about Hamlet, to unravel the text, to discover it.

I was not interested in doing a straight Hamlet, not at all. The aim – as it is for anyone who makes art I think – is to come up with a text that reflects our lives, that reflects our experience of life.

Shakespeare is important in India, but there haven’t been many successful productions of his plays in recent years because most of them are very boring. They’re not done in an innovative way; just the same old thing. I don’t know why anybody would want to do that.

I think that fixed ideas of any kind are a problem. How do we know that this is meant to be played like this, that this is meant to be said like this, that Hamlet is this kind of a character? We just follow it because it’s always been done like that, so it must be true. It’s a problem.

Of course, when we started working on the play, we didn’t know how it was going to turn out. We didn’t know anything. We just started with the idea of clowns and Hamlet: “Okay, how can we play this scene, what does it mean?” After three weeks of trying things out we might say, “No it doesn’t work, throw it out, try something else”.

We were trying to find the essence of the text – or rather, what we wanted from the text – so a lot of the plot has gone. All the politics, Fortinbras – it doesn’t excite us. What is the essential tragedy of Hamlet? The tragedy of Ophelia is what concerned us, so we looked only at that. Some very good things – like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – went because although we tried very hard, we could not find a place for them.

Clowning gives us a liberty to interact with the text: you are able to step back and directly comment on the play. So Hamlet will twist Ophelia’s arm and then someone will say, “Why is Hamlet doing it? Is that the way to treat someone you love?” It makes the play much more accessible. When the chief clown finds out they’re doing Hamlet, he says, “Nobody talks like that anymore. You say thee, thou, thy and the audience die. Let’s do something contemporary”. For me, I now understand the text better because of this exercise and I think that audiences do too.

The show was first performed in September 2008 and has toured all over India and to Singapore, Indonesia, the Netherlands and now the UK, but we keep working at it. Before every show we work for about an hour. It’s about looking back at what happened yesterday, as well as looking for new directions, new gags, new jokes. It keeps us excited about the play, and stops it from becoming mechanical.

Last week was the 100th show. It’s exciting that the play is still alive, that the actors are still excited by it.


Hamlet the Clown Prince will be playing at the Hackney Empire, London from 23 to 26 March, with pre-show workshops taking place on 24 and 26 March. For tickets, visit the Hackney Empire website or call 020 8985 2424.

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