The Theatreguide.London Review
The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
Criterion Theatre 1996-2005; new productions Arts Theatre Summer 2007, Leicester Square Theatre Summer 2013
In 1987, the three American guys who called themselves the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC, geddit?) put together this pastiche covering - or at least mentioning - all of Shakespeare's plays in 90 minutes.
Those familiar with the British tradition of university revues will recognize the format (Americans, think Saturday Night Live with erudition and literary jokes in place of the pop culture references) - a string of sketches and stand-up bits mixing very clever verbal wit with bawdy jokes and sight gags.
So, for example, Titus Andronicus, which climaxes in a cannibalism scene, is done as a parody of a TV cooking show (gore-met cooking, geddit?). The history plays become an American football game with running commentary (Henry IV passes to Henry V...).
At their best they can be very clever, as when they blend all those interchangeable comedies about mistaken identities and girls disguised as boys into one all-purpose plot, Three Men and a Little Transvestite. Even the groaner puns are worth it; Othello (who, of course, gets a rap number), comes on with toy boats tied to him (he's a Moor, geddit?).
For my money, though, there's a little too much reliance on easy physical humour, and a few too many pratfalls. The two longest sketches are Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet, and both are built on the sight gag of a six-foot guy galumphing about in a dress and wig as Juliet or Ophelia. It gets a laugh, but it's too obvious a laugh, and not up to the level of some of the shorter bits.
The original trio have cloned themselves a few times and head various touring companies, so you're likely to see one or none of them at the Criterion. By its very nature the show is uneven (The sketches can't all be gems), but it does deliver what it promises - 90 minutes of fast-moving light entertainment.
Amazingly, this very entertaining sketch show is 16 years old, having premiered at the 1987 Edinburgh Festival. And its mix of irreverence, wit and high spirits continues to delight audiences.
Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, the American trio who first came up with the idea of parodying or at least mentioning all of Shakespeare's plays in one show, have cloned themselves several times over, so that now there is a pool of about a dozen performers rotating among the three shows done in London (There's one on Dickens and one on the Bible) and the several touring companies. (A fourth show, on the Great Books, is being tested at this year's Edinburgh Festival, and will probably join the mix.)
The show has been lengthened by about 15 minutes since its London opening, mainly by stretching the existing material rather than adding much that's new (though there are updated side-jokes on Ally McBeal, the Iraqi war, and the like). Now there's an interval, and the Hamlet parody takes up the whole second act.
A lot of the fun for the audiences clearly comes from watching Shakespeare not getting the reverence their schoolteachers gave him, but the material is legitimately funny, and the cast give the impression of a spontaneity that is infectious (though I'm prepared to bet that most of the adlibs, giggling and goof-ups are carefully scripted and rehearsed).
As I said in my original review, it isn't consistent, and sometimes goes for the easy laugh. But anyone who loves Shakespeare will find a lot to enjoy, and anyone who hates Shakespeare will love it.
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