TO TRAP the king who killed his father, Hamlet turns to theatre. “The play is the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King,” he says with a manic gleam, and calls the production The Mousetrap. In a new play devised from William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Hamlet, a poor theatre company from India decides to audition for The Mousetrap. The hour-and-a-half-long play, Fired by Hamlet, presented by Theatre Garage Project, will be staged in Delhi this week.
Michael Moritz, a German director, whose formidable repertoire on stage, screen and television is pinned down by an inviolable ethic — every gesture is connected to the thoughts of the actor — has created the play with Delhi-based actors. Rehearsal at Siddharth Hall of Max Mueller Bhavan are intense affairs as the artistes strain against themselves to learn a different performance style.
As Magnifico, the owner of the theatre company, Ashwath Bhatt wears a suitably haunted look of one who has been cheated by fortune. When he notices a ray of hope in the chance to perform for Hamlet, Magnifico grasps at it with defiance.
“This opportunity I am going to cash. With this bunch that trusted me, I have to succeed,” he says. His voice rising to a crescendo, he announces, “We will strive and survive.” The motley group looks confused and then shout in one voice, “Yay.”
“Stop, stop. You have to give it more life. It doesn’t work if it can’t come from the heart. Try one more time, from the chest and into the face,” calls out Moritz, a faculty member at the Vienna Conservatory and writer of 11 crime novels.
The scene is replayed several times. During lunch, Moritz says, “I have watched a lot of Bollywood films. The funny characters play stupid, it is not the situation that is funny. Hamlet would say, ‘No, it is the situation that is important’. You can exaggerate but you have to be connected with yourself.”
Moritz had initially planned to work on Bertolt Brecht with actors he had trained in physical theatre as part of Funny Bones workshops last year and this year. “We finally decided to devise a comedy using the form and characters from Shakespeare and Commedia dell’arte . I could work with the body and invent scenes,” he says.
Commedia dell’arte is an Italian form from the 14th century, whose hallmark is the ease with which comedians played their parts so that they could “make tears flow or laughter ring”.
Characters such as Columbina (Amba Suhasini Jhala) in Fired by Hamlet are Commedia archetypes of beautiful women “who know how to play the game”; Stupido (Mohit Tiwari) and Harlequino (Sonmoni Sarmah) are named after their nature; Brigella (Shivam Pradhan) is a master of jugaad and Capitano (Yogendra) “once used to be a big man”.
“You have so many different elements in one play — from genres to archetypes to masks to slapstick to physicality. If you lose timing, the whole scene is gone. This is a difficult play because, in India, we are not used to physical comedy in this sense,” says Bhatt.
The play opens with the characters asleep under a red bedsheet made from a stage curtain. Only their feet are visible. To a haunting song by Olivia (Purnima Yengkokpam), they display the first signs of struggle when they pull the sheet this way and that to cover themselves and leave others cold. “In Commedia, every character is looking for his advantage. In Fired by Hamlet, the characters are not hungry, they are dying of hunger,” says Moritz.
Starvation is bringing out their ugly side. When young Olivia is caught with lipstick from the green-room supplies, Columbina hits upon a plan to prostitute her for food. “She is pretty enough for the shopkeeper. Pretty enough to get us some food, oh, the shopkeeper around the corner would like that very much,” she says.
“No, no, no. Keep it clear. No colouring because, the thing is, you know, this is very emotional. Keep it dry or it stops being strong,” says Moritz.
Jhala, who graduated in classical acting from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 2009, picks up the dynamics of the moment to the director’s satisfaction and the play moves on to the next scene of fear, ambition and self-interest.