Tim Crouch’s collaboration with comedy troupe Spymonkey is an inspired and audacious undertaking, a riotous – and often riotously funny – concoction that is equal parts graphic Grand Guignol to Three Stooges slapstick.
The Complete Deaths is the 74 onstage deaths of Shakespeare’s plays (75 if you count the ‘black ill-favoured fly’ of Titus Andronicus who, by the end – having buzzed around the stage and on-screen throughout – feels like such an integral character I was genuinely sad at his demise). The ‘onstage’ caveat, made in the interests of brevity, means some of the most powerful deaths are missing – so no Lady Macbeth, and no Ophelia, which is much protested by Petra Massey (and rightly so, since stripping the works down so severely shows how often women are dispatched silently offstage – no redemptive final farewell speeches for the ladies). But while this all might sound unpalatably grisly, it’s probably the funniest show about slaughter you’ll ever see (and it is mainly murders – not a lot of natural passing in the Bard’s canon).
Absurdity is high on the agenda, and the knockabout physical comedy is complemented by plenty of sight jokes and visual puns, and some of the set pieces are truly inspired (Richard III and Titus Andronicus were particular standouts). Designer Lucy Bradridge clearly had a ball: fake willies, PVC kilts, plastic boobs, and coloured codpieces abound (the last being handy for storage, apparently). The cast have the imitable chemistry of a long-term troupe; Massey’s weary would-be tragic heroine (who really wants her Ophelia moment, and is a bit fed up with the guys falling in love with her) and Toby Park’s frustrated social commentator – decrying his bourgeois audience and its need for diversion – a perfect foil to the broader clowning of Aitor Basaurl and Stephan Kreiss.
Pleasingly, this isn’t just a show for Bard boffins – there’s plenty to like even if you’re not familiar with most of the plays. If anything, this production illustrates that any attempt to de-contextualise scenes from Shakespeare can never quite work: even if you’ve never set foot in a theatre, his work is embedded in our cultural and linguistic DNA – you recognise things you don’t recall ever knowing. And while it is a little baggy in places, for the most part the hit rate is high, and it’s hard to begrudge such a laugh-out-loud show its occasional excesses.
There’s some slightly throwaway commentary on the nature of art and entertainment, and whether the two are mutually exclusive, with a running joke about Basaurl wanting to be a ‘real’ Shakespearean actor, ‘like Kenneth Branagh’; but beyond a pat plea for ‘balance’, the dilemma is never truly resolved. And all the while, an indifferent official sits at the side of the stage with an LED display, disinterestedly and implacably counting down the deaths, characters being ushered offstage even as they protest their scenes aren’t finished, they aren’t yet ready to die. There’s a message in there somewhere, so we might as well clown around.
The Complete Deaths now comes to Bristol’s Mayfest from 17th – 18th May. Click here for details.