The Complete Deaths is certainly one of the funniest tributes to Shakespeare you’re likely to see in this anniversary year, but it struggles when it strays away from humour and into more serious meditations of mortality.
The framing device, that each member of the troupe wants different things from this show, is thin. Toby wants to make a piece about art and the failures of capitalist society, forcing bourgeois theatregoers to confront their own mentality; Petra wants her moment in the spotlight as Ophelia; Aitor wants to be a “proper” Shakespearian actor; Stephan is in love with Petra.
The break-out moments provide a few laughs and give a little structure to the production, but I wonder if this romp through all 75 on-stage deaths in Shakespeare’s plays would have been stronger if they had fully embraced the silliness of the idea and not tried to bring balance the buffoonery with the more serious moments.
The discussions about the value of art and questions of mortality aren’t explored enough to provide a foil for the comedy, and feel rather throw-away. There’s some passing stuff about the reverence we reserve for Shakespeare and how we perform the plays, but given the diversity of Shakespeare adaptations and productions at any given time, this feels slightly old-fashioned.
That said, there is more than enough silliness to make this an enjoyable and entertaining evening. From spangly unitard to false noses, The Complete Deaths is at its best when it offers full-on clowning. The company’s physicality is superb, and some of the deaths are downright hilarious. Hector being beaten to death with musical sticks has me crying with laughter, and Cleopatra’s dance with snakes is a delight.
Other deaths come with less knockabout comedy, although the Sweeney Todd-esque pie machine in Titus Andronicus is great. (Spoiler: everyone gets minced, regardless of how they die in the text.) Richard III’s “My kingdom for a horse!” death shows off the company’s theatrical skills, and Romeo and Juliet demonstrates just how heavy a dead body really is.
Wisely, some of the deaths are bunched together – a lot of lords die in the Henry plays, it turns out – and having a buzzer and count-down for each new death is a nice touch. There’s little rhyme or reason to the order of deaths, although they do save Hamlet’s body pile-up for the end.
The whole show feels buzziest when the cast are manically dashing about or dancing in kilts or bouncing off the walls. There’s little room for reflection or poignancy in this race to the end, but it’s excellent fun counting down to zero.
The Complete Deaths was on as part of Mayfest 2016. For more of their programme, click here.