Review: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
I first discovered the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC) 5 years ago when I caught the Othello Rap on Youtube. I fell in love with the idea behind The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) immediately and ordered the DVD from Amazon. I have watched it many times, each time splitting my sides with uncontrollable laughter and awed by what true mastery of the English language can do to amaze and delight.
Imagine my joy when out of the blue comes this production at the DBS Arts Centre. I bought my ticket immediately.
William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (current scholars debate if it’s 38 or 39). The idea behind The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged (henceforth CWA) was to condense all his plays into a 97 minute parody. This really does means ALL… by any means necessary. Comedies, tragedies and histories are summarized, squeezed, and highly abbreviated by three actors (at breakneck speed). Watch as plays get modernized, trimmed, butchered, conflated, and even just honourable mentions.
The play was originally performed by the super tag team of Martin Reed, Austin Tichenor and Andrew Long. Since then it has been performed by different RSC actors. The Singapore performance artists are Jeff Marlow, Tiger Reel and Dan Saski.
The actors have great chemistry, sense of timing and improv ability. Each delivered with conviction and high energy and there was not one weak link. The humour spans the gamut from smutty to slapstick to sophisticated. My cheeks hurt badly, and I have watched it on DVD many times and thought I knew what to expect.
It would be helpful to be familiar with some of the major plays like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Macbeth to get the ‘insider’ humour, but it is not a prerequisite to having a hilarious time. All you need is an idea who Shakespeare was and to understand that his works are studied and debated very seriously in the highest scholarly circles. The entertainment lies in the juxtaposition of that academic backdrop with the irreverent ways they are delivered in CWA.
Highlights (contains spoilers)
There were three highlights for me
1. The Histories revolve around the lives of English Kings, and the entire lineage from King John to Henry VIII is given form and manifested as…. An exciting game of American Football! King Lear ejected from the game for committing the foul of being fictitious was a hoot. Suffice it to say this short segment was a lot more entertaining than many American Football games I’ve seen.
2. The Othello rap was what started it for me and needless to say I was waiting with great anticipation. It’s incredible how the essence of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays can be captured in a two-minute rap, and then delivered with such energy and fun. If children were introduced to Shakespeare and other difficult subjects in this form, it would stimulate a lot more interest, not to mention greatly aid in memory retention.
3. Hamlet takes up the entire second half, and fittingly so. Arguably one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, this play has some of his best speeches. Hamlet involved the greatest amount of audience participation, centering on the ironically unimportant “Get thee to a nunnery” incident. Everyone played different parts of Ophelia’s psyche culminating in a total scream (literally and figuratively). But what really moved me was the unexpected lead in to the “What a piece of work is a man” speech, delivered in a straight fashion and underscoring the fact that behind the buffoonery is a group of bona fide, seriously talented stage actors.
Differences from the DVD
It’s hard not to compare any performance of CWA with that of the original trio of Martin Reed, Adam Long and Austin Tichenor. Understandably, actors change with time, and improvisational elements of the play mean every performance will be slightly different, and won’t exactly play out the same way.
Still, there were significant differences that are worthy of mention for those who have actually watched the DVD.
Here are changes I liked:
1. Compared to the DVD, there are lots more double entendres and clever sexual metaphors. This isn’t done in an offensive way, and almost every one hits the jackpot. The innuendoes range from the obvious, to what I would call “clinical”, which I can’t imagine anyone without a medical background appreciating. The writers have clearly done their research to make this work on many different levels. Children, needless to say, are completely clueless though I foresee tough Q&A times for parents after the play!
2. Speaking of children, I was relieved that the more visual aspects of the Titus Andronicus ‘cooking show’ have been toned down. I believe some of the original imagery would not be appropriate for children.
3. There are also modernizations to parts of the original script that would be dated by now. The original play was performed in 1987, and the DVD was released in 2003. Much time has passed, so modern references to the iPhone, the Twilight series and even an appropriate silently mouthed “WTF” from Hamlet add pleasant and unexpected twists.
Here’s what I didn’t like:
1. Omission of a classic passage delivered so well by Reed Martin as an introduction to Titus Andronicus. This is a defining moment in the play for me that’s completely missing from this production.
“… we have traced the roots of Shakespeare’s symbolism in the context of a pre-Nietzschean society through the totality of a jejune circular relationship of form, contrasted with a complete otherness of metaphysical cosmologies, and the ethical mores entrenched in the collective subconcious of an agrarian race…”
For the full speech watch the first part of this clip (but skip from 00:55 if you’re faint of heart.)
Is it nonsense? Yes.
Is it a fine example of verbal virtuosity? Absolutely.
2. The Othello rap was my first intro to the Complete Works and the RSC, and although it was adequately performed to a beat generated from foot stomps, it could not compare to the original. Absent was the beat boxing done by Adam Long and Austin Tichenor. Dramatic timing was off in a few areas, most notably the necessary pause in “had a big… sword!”, thereby eliminating the comic effect of what the obvious rhyme would have been. Check out time 01:40 of this Youtube clip to understand what I mean.
3. If you’ve watched how the intermission was originally bracketed, you cannot fail to be impressed by Reed Martin’s range of talents. When twos actor escape the auditorium, he attempts to keep the audience entertained by activities such as fire eating, playing the accordion, and beating the William Tell Overture on his larynx. If you were lookigg forward to this live, you’ll be disappointed. It’s gone here. Granted, it is truly hard to follow given Martin’s background in clowning, but a bit of a letdown nonetheless.
In sum, this was a play that delivered what it promised: stitch-inducing laugher from start to finish and lots of fun for anyone with a good appreciation of the English language and its subtleties. It will bring especial delight to anyone who has read any of Shakespeare’s original works, and is worth watching even if you’ve seen the original.
I believe that when you spend a good amount of time working on your Life goals, whether it’s building a business or losing some weight, it’s essential to take a mental break. The arts, particularly theater, is one way to deliver you out of this world. Humour provides an avenue for release via laughter. Mix the two and you have a powerful stress relief bomb that is the RSC’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).