When Forced Entertainment perform Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare live, it is usually done in front of a red velvet curtain — a playful little nod to an overt signifier of theatricality, a hint of glamour contrasted against the various boxes of household items stacked unassumingly at the side of the stage. Complete Works: At Home, a YouTube version of their semi-durational Shakespeare adaptations that unfolds in daily instalments, leans fully into the homemade, lo-fi aesthetic — a promotional video for the series shows members of the troupe rooting through their store cupboards and cellars for half empty packets of curry powder and bags of sugar (“The perfect Claudius,” Terry O’Connor mutters, holding up a bottle of flea powder.) When they each sit behind their kitchen tables, they all inadvertently exude children’s television presenter energy. Rarely raising their voices above a low murmur, each paraphrases one of Shakespeare’s plays, using the objects in front of them to signify the action like a child playing pretend with dolls (“It’s rather awkward between these two,” Cathy Naden comments at one point in Measure for Measure, and aptly moves the two objects a little further away from each other.)
Shakespeare’s poetry is eschewed for the most part in favour of simple, prosaic retellings — one of my favourite moments is the way the beginning of “to be or not to be” is laconically summed up by O’Connor with a deadpan, “Hamlet’s thinking about death again” — though there is a simple poetry to the constant conjunctions (“And he says,” “And he’s sort of like,” “And then they”), all of which are delivered in the way you might recount a story to your friends at the pub, gently emulating each character without really attempting to embody them. The narration is peppered through with pauses and stumbles — I laughed a little when a ball of string/nameless civilian in Measure for Measure fell on its side and Naden quickly steered it off the table, saying, “One of them’s feeling a bit ill, so they go home.” It all adds to the DIY, come as you are spirit — this idea that all you need to put on a show is a table, some mismatched kitchen utensils, and a (mostly) empty space.
Complete Works, like so much of Forced Entertainment’s work, treads a fine line between silliness, banality, and peculiar profundity. It feels absurd that Juliet (a plump jar of lime marmalade) develops a bashfulness about her, and yet when O’Connor positions Romeo (an upright red torch) to kiss her, there is an odd frisson. When Angelo (a perfectly cast square-shouldered bottle of Copydex) propositions Isabella (a grey and white china teacup with an enticingly curled wire handle), I sat forward at my desk, genuinely aggrieved. When Jerry Killick folds his arms and looks at an upside down hammer (Malvolio) with the kind of expression a parent might give their unruly child, you understand that Complete Works is self-conscious and aware of the ridiculousness of its own conceit, but also fully committed to it. I find that there is something so inherently theatrical in that idea.
Shakespeare wrote cracking yarns, many of which were themselves reappropriated or adapted from folklore and myth. This is what Complete Works is able to draw out most deftly — that the best stories are resilient precisely because they are constantly reinterpreted and reimagined. The UK’s obsession with Shakespeare as a cultural property is frustrating and often weirdly insidious, and yet, despite his massive over-proliferation in British theatre, Forced Entertainment are able to remind you why Shakespeare’s still pretty good, actually. Each narrator brings different emphasis to their stories — take the way Naden frames the ending of Measure for Measure: “[Isabella] looks around at the couples, one completely ill-suited, the other well-matched. She looks back at the Duke, but says nothing. She doesn’t even take his hand.” Complete Works might coyly present itself as a modest storytelling exercise, with narrators running through well-trodden plot points simply and sequentially, but nothing is immune to subjective interpretation and extrapolation— not the narrators, not Shakespeare, not even the audience members. Humans are naturally empathetic — that’s why we see faces in misshapen vegetables, seek out shapes in the clouds, trace lines for constellations. We want to see the humanity in everything. It makes complete sense that one would slowly project onto these objects and eventually empathise with them. It’s a seemingly unassuming, extraordinary experiment — a transformational piece of work which distills theatre and storytelling down to their purest forms. Complete Works works like a magic trick — a theatrical sleight of hand that you almost don’t realise is happening until it’s too late.
Forced Entertainment’s Tabletop Shakespeare is available to watch for free on YouTube, – the final instalment will be added on 15th November 2020.