Forced Entertainment are streaming their Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare performances live from the Berliner Festspiele Foreign Affairs Festival. A single performer tells the story of a single Shakespeare play in 40 minutes, with only condiments and other household objects as the cast. Read Artistic Director Tim Etchell’s take on the ‘lo-fi puppetry and diagrammatic deadpan’ of the project here. With 36 unique performances and four shows a day until they finish up with The Tempest on Saturday 4th July, here at Exeunt we’ve been following #completeworks, tuning-in to the stream here, and tapping away while we watch.
Cymbeline (July 3rd, 5pm)
Annegret Märten: It begins…
…with a plot too convoluted even for an early 17th century play. And it is held together by the most powerful word in the English language: because.
A court in Ancient Britain, impossibly naïve vows of unconsummated love, vials of not-really-poison. Then Welsh caves, stolen sons, surprise beheadings, Jupiter himself descending from the heavens. Implausibility abounds in this comparatively little-performed play (which is my apologetic way of saying that I had never seen Cymbeline before). In FE’s table top version with its elegant crystal glasses, golden candle holders and comedic spatulas as character stand-ins, the only things that holds the plot incongruities together is the little word ‘because’. That and the rhythmic ebb and flow of objects appearing and Terry O’Connor’s warm voice announcing that ‘he or she goes’ to leave the scene.
O’Connor has the most fun with a character called Cloten, son of the conniving Queen. He’s the dull thud of nails being slammed on the table and who is set to make the somewhat hapless heroine Imogen his own, gladly by force. This is what makes Table Top Shakespeare a fascinating experiment. In the small and tender moments these everyday objects have a puppetry-like quality. Two glasses slowly being turned towards each other to show that after painful stretches of mistaken identity finally two lovers are finally recognising each other – that can be very moving. At the same time it’s an abstraction. If a character disguises as the other gender their object simply gets turned upside down. Or, if someone is a cardboard cut-out character, like Cloten, this brute of a man, a pack of nails is a short code not just to illustrate his traits but also to comment on the questionable characterisation by the writer.
There’s little motivation for any of the characters doing anything of what they do. Yet they do and O’Connor tells us why:
Because of trust issues a former servant decided to steal the king’s two sons to live as hunters in the Welsh mountains.
Because the new Queen is evil to the core and wants more power she gets a vial of poison to then tempt a hitherto loyal servant to potentially do a thing that might somehow be helpful to her cause.
Because an Italian noble man decides to do a wager with a clueless young man he goes on the arduous journey all the way to Britain to try and fail to seduce a woman.
This is not to say that Cymbeline doesn’t have some meaningful messages about trust and daring others to keep trust or about the commoners/noblemen chasm…but only because causality exists Shakespeare was able to concoct this potential self-parody of his own work.
Romeo and Juliet (July 2nd, 20:00)
David Ralf: Have you ever heard of the stopped clock illusion? You look at a clock, and sometimes it seems as if a few full moments pass before the second hand seems to jerk back into life. Our brain lies to us, as it tries to make sense of what it sees, and what it knows. In Act 1 scene 5, Terry O’Connor puts more ‘characters’ on her tabletop stage than I’ve seen so far in the Complete Works. She builds up the Capulet party with triangles of servants and dancing ladies, green Capulets, and red Montague interlopers. And then she tells us that Romeo catches sight of Juliet for the first time, and it’s as if the room stands still. And it’s a few full moments before I realise that it always was. That the green-tinged plastic glasses were not dancing in ballgowns, and the little glass cups were never bustling around serving vol-au-vents. But the effect of that stillness outlives the stopped-clock moment, and Terry pushes red torch Romeo toward lime marmalade Juliet. I’m holding my breath. The cluttered table is muted background noise compared to the sharp focus of Romeo, half an inch from Juliet, and their smart words about saints and pilgrims and sinful kisses sweetly urged. Smash cut to a near-empty table with a jar of lime marmalade on its side. For a second, alone, lying in state. Actually dead, in a way that an actor never could be dead onstage. Soon a red torch stands over her, and the bodies of her cousin and her fiancé, both slain by his hand. We do not see it, but we know that he is holding a vial of poison. Imagine that in a few moments the lime marmalade will stand straight up again, and find herself a widow, the altar candle’s brilliant scheme foiled – alive in a crypt, surrounded by the dead bodies of her most loved men. No wonder she calls the dagger ‘happy’.
Titus Andronicus (July 1st, 20:00)
Bojana Jankovic: Brace yourself: 14 murders (9 on stage), 7 limbs chopped off, 1 live burial, 1 rape, 1 act of cannibalism (via 2 characters made into a pie) + 1 case of insanity. Does it sound viscous or does it sound like a slow news night? The title of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play seems all but meaningless today; Shakespeare’s most naked play might be something – after all female anatomy is more likely to be blurred out than a severed head. The Table Top setup is at its most conceptual with Titus Andronicus: there’s no blood, no explicit violence and no gore-thrill. Instead, Robin Arthur is gentle and prophetic, a storyteller who knows the devastation before he’s begun. He builds a poetic, calm but defeated hue; he inserts the bottles of balsamic vinegar and shower gel with vulnerability where banality lurked and approaches them as if they were unprotected, threatened victims. The commonplace props clash with the brutality of the narrative they serve so they can unravel the simplicity behind atrocities. The audience laughed when Portia judged her suitors, when Henry VI got cuckolded before he even consummated his marriage and when Malvolio donned the yellow stockings. Titus Andronicus passes with barely a chuckle; silence prevails. I could quote Shakespeare but it would be cheap.
The Merchant of Venice (July 1st, 19:00)
BJ: Next: a play about defaulting on a loan. On July 1st, in Berlin. How’s that for forward thinking? Claire Marshall wants you to know where everyone is from: that the English never speak any language other than their own, that the Moroccans are a bit too dark for the virtuous Portia, and that the friendly, funny guy you kind of fancy is a bit reckless with the cash. This Merchant of Venice is about bon vivants who are charming and loyal and smart even, though perhaps not smart enough to ditch their posh racist friends; instead they leach cash from the hated, though they probably compensate by sharing cool stuff on Facebook. Animosities are plentiful, but money is tight, so everyone sticks together. Forced Entertainment wait for the temperature to rise until the contracts and technicalities implode. Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc. Claire Marshall wants you to know where everyone is from because it’s all that matters in the end: the foreign will be ousted, less they conform. You might even sympathise with the dodgy friend; you might even forget about the ousted. It’s a confusing, perplexing mess of prejudice, normativity and self-aggrandising political manipulation masquerading as wit. Actually, that first sentence will do.
Henry VI, part 1 (July 1st, 18:00)
BJ: Confession: I do not excel at Shakespeare’s history plays, most likely because I do not excel at British history as much as I’d like to think. This weakness leads to contemporary conclusions; promise to brush up on relevant narratives tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s how it went. The English have a King who’s in over his head and also no one really listens to him. It’s like that time the PM shaped all his policies to appease everyone else in his party (and that other party) and then won much to his own surprise (and mine) and then, well, then he didn’t really have a choice, so he turned right. The English manage to turn a squabble into a war, ostensibly revolving around everyone’s favourite rose colour, though it appears to be more over who gets to rule whatever is left of the country once the French are done with them. An extra in the background shouts English votes for English laws. The English are trying real hard to be taken seriously in Europe. Instead they get destroyed in every way imaginable and attempt diplomacy via the means of arranged marriage. It’s like that time the PM went to talk to 27 other PMs and they let him talk, and then no one said a thing but he still liked talking, so he was OK with it. Many people die. Some in the course of the battle, some on the stake. A woman concludes it’s better to marry the King than to be a slave. Many people die. Some of them in the ocean. A report claims the government is breaching its Convention on the Rights of the Child obligations. The government scraps child poverty targets. Nope – sorry – that was irrelevant. Someone else is sleeping with the King’s feature wife. He thinks he is effectively the King. I wonder what happens next. p.s. The only production of Henry VI trilogy that I can recall was part of Globe to Globe festival in 2012. It was produced by three Balkan theatres, mistaken on several occasions for three Baltic theatres by prominent reviewers. All the world’s a stage.
Twelfth Night (1st July, 17:00) I love you. I pity you. Well, that’s a bit like love, no?
BJ: Of the top of my head I count 12 productions of the Twelfth Night I’ve seen. This one though is coming straight from the capital of the scary Regietheater, yet interpreted by a seminal UK company. It’s condensed and it’s retold, by one man (Jerry Killick), using a plunger, a bag of flour and a beer mug, amongst other props. Will Europe stop at nothing? This is cathartic. Let me explain (don’t revoke my visa): the Shakespeare thing is out of control. In his home country Shakespeare is not a playwright so much as a shorthand for an entire industry. It starts with the tourist trap that is The Globe and ends with Jeremy Paxman asking students to recognise the play from the quote, week after week. It’s all about the words (words, words). And the keychains. The standard-British relationship to staging Shakespeare is a blueprint for the standard-British relationship to directing: interventions scarcely allowed, especially if subsidy is involved (and no, modern-day costumes don’t count). Interpreting is rarely in play, because hey, Shakespeare’s words are self-explanatory and can only ever contain one meaning. Yet here we are: the UK’s biggest theatre export since Shakespeare (consumer speak strictly ironic) has interpreted the Twelfth Night as more of a problem play than a comedy. It’s melancholic and dramatic: shipwreck and lost family members are in focus after all. Even the plunger is only capable of providing occasional comic relief: Illyria seems somber. It’s full of self-oppression, shy-sexism and shy-homophobia, unfulfilled egos and a seemingly embedded suspicion towards foreign bodies and new feelings; broken, bleeding hearts abound. Survival is what most in this story are aiming for; characters usually cast as easy-laughs providers (yellow stockings and all) are manipulated fools at best and dangerous manipulators at worst. Mistaken identities result in arrests and serious fracas; quick marriages and miracle solutions are ridiculed. The happy ending sounds more like a propaganda headline than actual fulfilment. It’s flat and sullen because it’s Twelfth Night, not despite of it.
Troilus and Cressida (30th June, 20:00)
DR: I am thinking about all of the layers, of telling and retelling, and prising open, and filling in, that give us this Homeric Shakespearean Shaggy God story. The violently felt love and lovingly rendered violence that has been refined and revered by metre and memory, and remetred, reversed, remembered, and retold, again and again. And now told again, by a single middle-aged man who finds it both funny and serious and takes his time even though you don’t notice the time passing. Jerry Killick could play Pandarus, but could also play Ulysses – he has a perfect age and bearing for this telling. And he do the police in different voices. And is the placing of a bottle of Tabasco (Hector), a near empty toothpaste tube (Nestor) or a bar of soap (Ulysses) qualitatively different than a Homeric epithet such as ‘glinting helmeted’, ‘sweet spoken’ or ‘cunning plotter’? And aren’t the characters of Homer simultaneously massive and tiny? Don’t the gods tower over them, like a storyteller over pint glasses at the bar? The heroes of Greece and Troy are each as big as an idea or an eternal action that will never be forgotten, and as small as a repeated word or a phrase, more placeholder than man, like a label on a bottle. And aren’t those paper-thin labels still resilient, and aren’t Homer’s Achilles and Shakespeare’s Achilles both somehow still the Achilles in our heads even though they share only a few deeds and conflicting traits? “And the very last thing that happens” is always that someone tells it again, puts stress on a different word, or laughs a bit as they remember it, and the labels are slightly scuffed or cleaned up.
The Comedy of Errors (30th June, 19:00)
DR: The Comedy of Errors is desperately unfunny. We can all agree on that, right? If you have positive memories of a full-length production you actually sat all through, then you must be an identical twin, and to you, the play is like five acts of first-rate observational gags. Terry O’Connor knows this, and having given her Hamlet on Sunday night and shown off Shakespeare’s work at the peak of his powers, she’s not disguising her feelings about this unreconstructed sexist, classist, silly farce. But hey, that’s what being a Completist is all about. And when Dromio complains about Nell, comparing her to a globe and her features to Spain, France and America, Terry gives us a look. “And they’re not letting this joke go”. She slows down for the Belgium and Ireland analogies and we don’t know whether she is simply pressing upon us their unfunny nature or wants us to linger on Dromio’s hatred of this fellow serf: “And they’re very happy with this joke. And when they’ve stopped laughing at its hilarity…” The double lack of plot washes on. “And at this moment, for some reason, Luciana and Adriana come back in”. Terry is not smoothing it over, she’s showing us The Comedy’s pock-marks, its rough edges. Its Errors. Terry O’ Connor, like the Antipholuses, is giving the play a Jolly. Good. Beating. Terry O’Connor, like Pinch, is “a bit of a doctor, a bit of an exorcist”, tending and scorning the play at once. But she still manages to make the meeting of long-separated pepper mills and sponges affecting. Like the Abbess, she’s putting all to rights. “She lost the boys. Pirates took them.” Terry is dry as a can of Schweppes Tonic Water (or a gold merchant), and for a play with a double helping of no distinguishable characters whatsoever, funnily enough, she’s made barely an error. Look out for more live-written coverage of the live-streamed Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare from Exeunt here later this week!