The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) – Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham

Writers: Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield (based on the book by William Shakespeare)

Director: Adam Lacey

Reviewer:  Selwyn Knight

The Shakespeare canon is pretty extensive – 37 plays generally accepted as by him, the less generally accepted Shakespeare Apocrypha and, of course, the 154 sonnets. In their 2006/7 season, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed the complete works in a single season, acknowledged as a huge undertaking. If they had only cast their eyes north, to the Edinburgh Fringes of 1987 and later, they could maybe have saved themselves some time, as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), originally written and performed by The Reduced Shakespeare Company, claims to cover the lot in one evening, taking Shakespeare’s maxim that “Brevity is the soul of wit” to its illogical conclusion. There’s obviously an appetite for condensed Shakespeare as the original (updated) version continues to tour as well as being produced independently, as is tonight’s performance from the Old Joint Stock Theatre Company.

The stage is largely empty, apart from a few small stage blocks and a dressing table and mirror. Our three protagonists introduce themselves – Alexander Varey is immediately set as the boy next door, one of the lads, who interrupts a fight scene when it musses his hair; Geoff Mills is the intellectual of the piece – as part of his degree, we are advised that he has read no fewer than two books on Shakespeare – he likes to pontificate and has written a modest tome himself about his love for his Willy, which he gets out to demonstrate, and modest is certainly the adjective of choice; the bardic trio is completed by Benjamin Archer, a high energy, highly strung, petulant method actor with a penchant for wigs and playing female characters.

Once introductions are out of the way – there is no fourth wall in this production – we dive straight in with Romeo and Juliet, and some time is spent on this, making us wonder how the others will ever fit. However, we need worry not, as all sixteen comedies are amalgamated into one with lots of sets of twins, mistaken identity and thin disguises being inexplicably impenetrable. Similarly, the history plays are performed as a game of American Football with the crown passing from king to king. The rather bloody Titus Andronicus is played as a cookery programme, while Othello is given a new lease of life in a rap version. Other plays get barely a nod until the cast realise, to their horror, that there is only one play left, the monumental Hamlet, the concept of which scares Archer so much that he flees the theatre and we have an interval while they regroup.

Once the cast is reassembled – Archer, apparently needs to be tempted back – the entire second half is given over to Hamlet including a memorable take on Ophelia’s inner monologue when she is banished to a nunnery as well as a rather fine rendition of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” monologue from Archer.

The whole is madcap and has an interactive, improvisational feel – and there is no doubt some of the responses to audience reactions are improvised. One’s disbelief is certainly suspended as one feels that we are witnessing a bunch of mates messing about with the script. But the choreography and tight timing belie that – this is a slick and professional piece throughout. The second half takes a few minutes to get back into its stride and maybe lacks quite the urgency and frantic pace as the first. Nevertheless, this is a tightly directed, fast-paced performance supported by the skills of the three players poking some gentle fun at the establishment – indeed more than gentle fun: throughout the performance there is never long to wait for the next belly laugh.

You might not increase your understanding of the nuances of Shakespeare’s writing as a result of watching, but you will leave the theatre on a high from the endorphins induced by your laughter.

Runs until 9 July 2017 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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