With I Don’t Like It As You Like It, presented by Centre Stage Creations, Cinematograph notches up its fourth Shakespearean appropriation in eight years employing Rajat Kapoor’s directorial concept of clowns. We should take notice of this magnificent obsession; after all, he has overtaken even Vishal Bhardwaj’s trio, leave alone most Indian theatre directors in recent memory, who have not gone beyond two Shakespeares. Granted, quantity does not necessarily translate into quality, but at the same time it must give us pause, to assess Kapoor’s achievement in his tetralogy with all seriousness.

To recapitulate, therefore: the novelty of the style and relatively close attention to the source made Hamlet the Clown Prince a success in the Shakespearean sweepstakes. The absence of both in Clown Lear and Nothing Like Lear – the two Lear versions directed by Kapoor under different banners – led to failure. They mangled the plot far too much and interpolated a superfluity of generic jokes and clowning routines. Although the tone changed from Atul Kumar’s comic to Vinay Pathak’s pathetic, neither could carry the overwhelming responsibility, which became a burden, of a solo show. Lesson learnt, Kapoor retreated to an ensemble on last year’s What Is Done Is Done, and superimposed an outer frame of two janitors producing Macbeth. The problem here lay in the result that their story got us more interested than the enactment of the Scottish play within the play.

After two misses, then, Kapoor chooses a comedy for the first time. Theoretically this counts as playing safe, because clowns take to comedy like the proverbial fish to water, whereas to subvert tragedies provides them with more of a challenge. The scenario, too, smacks of repetition – a sorry company has to present As You Like It – reminding us of the janitors who had to stage Macbeth. But even further back, great writers placed Shakespearean drama in metatheatrical situations, for example, classics like Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me Kate and Stoppard’s ingenious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead on stage, or Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be and George Cukor’s A Double Life on screen. Consequently, on the sliding scale of innovative approach or difficulty, I Don’t Like It … ranks rather low.

Within these limitations, though, it works reasonably well, better than Kapoor’s Lear and Macbeth variations. In my classes on theatre appreciation, I talk of another sliding scale, from strict textual closeness (like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet) to absolute interpretive liberty (like Dev Virahsawmy’s Toufann), neither better nor worse than the other, each to be judged on its own terms. On the one hand, because Kapoor takes off on Shakespeare, he does not bear any obligation to remain faithful to the storyline – it is his script, not Shakespeare’s. On the other hand, because he does not change the genre, like he had done before by treating tragedies comically, we should expect him to stay faithful to the spirit. He walks this fine line between creativity and fidelity for the most part without tripping up. While building the production through free collective improvisation, he retains a large number of lines from the original, which surprised me.

The six performers in his clown troupe have their personal histories and relationships which occupy the foreground at the beginning, giving way to practising As You Like It afterwards, ending in their favourable public reception. The sextet take the parts of Rosalind and Orlando (acted by real-life lovers in the company), Celia (a newcomer who has caught the director’s fancy), Jaques (with a bad memory and a pointless hand-puppet), Phoebe and Silvius (the flirt and her devoted admirer). The one couple whom one obviously anticipated in a clown show, Touchstone and Audrey, goes missing, and one wonders why Kapoor let the golden opportunity go.

But the move from the theatre, which its owner sells off, to the forest for rehearsals captures the transformative nature of that magical space, especially during a lull of nocturnal quietude in the zaniness when each voices their dreams. In this sylvan setting, the director has the bright idea (“To find yourself, you must become the other!”) of the men acting the female roles and vice versa – which actually brings their production halfway to Elizabethan authenticity, and revivifies the cousins’ quick-changes in Shakespeare’s play. But if anyone claims that Kapoor has pioneered this, yours truly must protest that I applied it to Measure for Measure in 2004. Some distinctive portrayals catch the eye: Faezeh Jalali’s livewire Rosalind, Aadar Malik’s sentimental singing as Orlando, Joy Fernandes’s cynically nasal director, while the team coheres best in the delectable, rapid-fire battle-of-the-sexes sequence exhibiting gender stereotyping.

(From The Telegraph, 25 June 2016)