(Full disclosure this writer had a chance to sit in on a few weeks of rehearsal for this piece, so insights into process, usually speculation, are here more firmly rooted in observation)
Despite the current global trend towards secularization, there is just no getting around our obsession with evil. Without it, what would horror movies market themselves? A concept of good and bad as derived from a Judeo-Christian morality has caught the world’s attention and held it, regardless of native religious practices, fueled purely by human desire. Simply put, we want to believe that evil exists, and that it comes from some place outside of ourselves, that it sneaks into is, inhabits us, but we can get rid of it if we really really try, we can be delivered, we can excorcise ourselves and return to a state that is pure, devoid of the evil that stained our souls. This is our fantasy, as humans, that clashes constantly with the other understanding of evil we possess, that is, that it comes from inside of us, that it isn’t some serpent in a tree tempting us with an apple, it’s us, we tempt ourselves, we damn ourselves, and there is no escape from our own evil because it IS us. So which is correct? Which one is right? If we knew, there would probably be no art.
There would definitely be no Macbeth, the play that asks the question: where does evil lie, outside of us, in the hearts of witches, devils, and other things that go bump in the night, or inside of us, in the ambitions of a man who hears a suggestion and sets his own life on fire to make it true? Where does evil come from? And what will it make us do?
It’s the reason Macbeth holds directors the world over in such a thrall, promising them epic moral struggles, a love story for the ages, a protagonist who is as exciting as he is insane, ghosts, knife fights, one horrifically long scene in England, everything you want and expect from a Shakespeare drama, really. It’s worth the curses, it’s worth the many consequences, real or imagined, of performing The Scottish Play, because you have two magnificent characters, a sea of random people, and a story that digs into the hearts of man and comes out on the other side, brilliant and bleeding. Besides, you get to say some great lines. The play has a power that tends to overwhelm attempts to adapt it, to change it, to bend it to your will. It also has some problems, which just goes to show that everyone, even Shakespeare, could use a decent editor. It’s a challenge, not just to do well, but to do your own way, although that’s just what Rajat Kapoor has attempted in his recent production of a greasepaint-coated adaptation of Macbeth, What’s Done Is Done!, which had it’s Mumbai premiere (and self-same closing night) this past Sunday at the National Center for the Performing Arts.
Kapoor has a habit of taking Shakespeare’s plays and turning them sideways, painting them with clown make up, and sending them back out again for the crowd to laugh and (hopefully) thrown only the softest of tomatoes. His irreverence for Shakespeare is refreshing, energizing, revitalizing. There are so many productions that take Shakespeare deeply seriously, and that’s wonderful, good for them, but why add to the pile? Why not come at it sideways, Kapoor’s productions ask, why not comment on the strangeness, the silliness, the nonsense, the pretense, all of the amalgamation of THINGS that we are just supposed to ignore because we’ve decided, collectively, that Shakespeare is perfect, the platonic form of theater, and it brooks no criticism. But everything brooks criticism, everything deserves to be evaluated, to be judged, to be continuously sharply scrutinized both for its values and it’s flaws, and we can’t put Shakespeare in some unassailable space just because we learned about it in high school and were told it was the end all and be all (that being said this phrase, of course, comes from Macbeth…).
So there is nothing wrong with bending Macbeth around to make a point. But Macbeth, as discussed, is a hard nut to crack, and the point you want to make about the play has to compete with a lot of points within the play itself, and that’s not an easy competition to win. Kapoor’s style for this and his other work involves a play-within-a-play, big shoes, wise cracks and a pseudo-gibberish style in strangely non-specific but vaguely Romance language oriented accents. He calls this a clown play, so let’s talk a little bit about clowning, and what it is. Contrary to popular belief, being a clown is fairly serious business.
The concept of clown as we now know it evolves from Commedia dell’Arte, the improvisational theater form that came out of Italy in the Renaissance. Shorted from the full title which translates to “comedy of the art of improvisation”, the form loosely based itself on the Roman and Greek comedies uncovered by Renaissance scholars, and used loose scenarios, or stories, actors in masks or make up, and a broad multi-lingual comedic style which evolved as a result of actors traveling and performing their work from country to country in Europe. The stock characters of the Commedia form included several servant characters like the zanni, whose buffoonery and rustic comedy coupled with the white make up popularized by the Harlequin character, a silent stock type, eventually gave way to an individual character living outside of the commedia troupe. Shakespeare himself used the term “clown” to mean a rustic fool, typical city snobbery, of course.
The development of circuses in the 19th century gave the clown a new place to live, and the character type grew new attributes, a red nose because of his excessive drinking, oversized clothing because he was associated with being a hobo, or homeless person, and so on, and so forth, until you see the clown of our nightmares, or dreams, depending on your childhood. But beyond their history, clowning has, in the last century, also taken on a training element, a methodology, a scholarship. Being a clown is often no laughing matter, as the process of creating a clown persona involves digging into the bedrock of what you as the actor hate most about yourself, and expanding it until the point where it is absurd, laughable, almost insane.
As Bertil Sylvander describes it in his 1984 article on the subject:
Clowns are primarily and fundamentally fragile and vulnerable (it is through this that clowns will draw their strength). While society expects us to be beautiful, intelligent, in control of our emotions and successful in our projects, clowns are not ashamed to show their physical disabilities, their simple-minded nature (not to mention a charming foolishness), their uncontrolled and overwhelming emotions. Naturally such a constitution drives clowns from one failure to another (up to the final success, of course). Clowns are not like the unruffled heroes of some Hollywood cowboy movies but more like eternally awkward and hopeless cases of failure.
Many famous clowns spent their lives in and out of mental institutions, and frankly, can you blame them? Imagine having to perform your worst self over and over again while people laugh at you? It sounds like the stuff of nightmares. And yet comedians do it the world over, which just goes to show that comedy is tragedy plus time.
Speaking of tragedy, let’s return to Kapoor’s play. Although there is a conceit of clowning, the veneer of clowning in Isha Ahluwalia’s excellent costumes (which don’t play well in the cavernous NCPA space but up close are a demented expressionistic dream) and the physical attempts at clowning from actors Vinay Pathak, Jim Sarbh, Sujay Saple and Sheena Khalid, it’s not really clear where the clown lives in this Macbeth adaptation. What is, in fact, the clown within the character of Macbeth? Where is his absurdity, his internal logic of buffoonery, his capacity for failure made funny? There are, of course, many options for this. As Sarbh’s Julio, a janitor-turned-play producer who, along with Pathak’s Pedro, narrate the play, points out, Macbeth is described as a kind-hearted just man, but the second a random group of women tells him their vision of the future he throws goodness out the window and goes all murder all the time. If this play were set in a high school the witches would be the mean girls and no one would make it to homecoming, let alone prom. And it’s a great point that Julio makes, but the serious frame of it doesn’t allow it to be a clown moment. Instead, in an effort to prove that everyone has the capacity for violence, Pedro attacks Julio, making the scene more Punch and Judy than pie in the face.
Kapoor’s cast has created a clever, quippy version of Macbeth, but where the clown lives inside of it, I’m just not always sure. Khalid, along with Kalki Koechlin and Tillotama Shome, start valiantly as cackling binge-eating witches, crunching away on snacks as they excitedly watch the battlefield like it’s a cricket match, cheering indiscriminately for all sides as long as they result in death. Confronting Banquo (Saple) and MackieB (Ranvir Shorey), they tantalize them with visions of their futures as the hapless guys just try to find a cell signal to get out of there. But of course, the men can’t help but listen to these temptations of the weird sisters, and soon a text message “herald” proclaiming one part of the prophecy true makes MackieB anxious to become the promised King of Scotland. Returning him, he is confronted by a trio of Lady Macbeths, (also Khalid, Koechlin and Shome) who overwhelm and surround him, leaving him a lone vessel in a sea of ambition. This division of Lady Macbeths works beautifully in that first scene, but it doesn’t have the backbone of the relationship to maintain an internal logic as the piece goes on, instead, it stops the relationship between Lady M and her MackieB from achieving any kind of arc or progression. Which shouldn’t matter that much, but it does, because the play begins to assert itself more and more as the piece goes on, discarding the clown references for a stripped down Macbeth in funny outfits. Shorey’s Macbeth is too powerful not to be absorbing and emotionally resonant, and his tragedy never becomes a comic one. Meanwhile, Saple works overtime to maintain the physical comedy and heightened reality with which the production starts, and Pathak and Sarbh’s increasingly irrelevant banter becomes darker and less commentative, robbing the piece of the outside perspective it had initially promised its audience.
This is a capable and well-balanced cast, and their work is great to watch, but on the clown side, it’s Saple, Pathak, Sarbh and Khalid that bounce around like rubber balls, letting their own internal logic guide them through an altered reality. On the serious side, it’s Shorey’s play, and his brooding dark performance is somehow all the more menacing with his clown make up intact. Although his Lady Macbeths are all fine, it’s Shome’s compact rage that feels the best match to Shorey’s paranoia turned viciousness, and watching him bat her around the stage creates one of the truly frightening moments of the play.
Asmit Pathare’s stellar lighting and the excellent and evocative sound design by Aditya Kelgaonkar all sit under Kapoor’s capable direction, and the production itself is well crafted and beautifully presented. It is funny, filled with one liners and pop culture references, silly sections and gorgeous visuals, and it’s a strong and solvent piece. It just doesn’t entirely feel like it knows what it is yet. Is it a stripped down Macbeth? Is it a clown piece? Is it a commentary? If so, what is it saying? Macbeth is a great story that always deserves to be told and re-told, but it’s relevance comes from how we see it today, how we understand it, how we separate our modern lens from its historic origins. What we are saying about Macbeth is as important as what Macbeth is saying itself. But it’s hard to fight such a strong narrative, you’re a Scottish salmon, swimming upstream against the current. I don’t blame anyone for giving up and going with the flow of the story, and doing it well, and effectively, in a way that connects with its audience and puts something fun and funny and visually interesting on stage. But I would say that if this production is aiming to be something different, to understand Macbeth as a clown play, then there is room to find that, and a rich ground for it to grow.
Those interested in catching this play will be able to see it state-side this July, and you can see dates and locations here. Hopefully when it’s had it’s fill of the United States it will be playing back in Mumbai again soon. After all, what’s done might be done, but it can also be re-done, right?
(Apologies for anyone I missed in the cast and crew! There was no program for this production, but if you send me your name I will work it in there somehow!)