Review: The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

Like every art form, theatre has rules, but they're also there to be broken and bruised. And not more so, apparently, than by the boisterous bruisers of the aptly-titled Bruiser Theatre Company, who gleefully abridge William Shakespeare with the poise, verve and élan one has come to expect from director Lisa May and the Belfast-based group.

Revamped from an original production by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, this is a play where time, and timing, is everything for the three clowns who take centre stage.

This trio - two wannabe brains and one out-of-control brawn, played by Derry-born Keith Lynch, Cambridge graduate Michael Patrick and Belfast-born Gerard McCabe respectively - think nothing of playing multiple characters, travelling back, forward and sideways in time for their cultural references and even dressing in tights if they feel like it.

The purism, structure and tone of their source material are secondary to whatever entertains. One wants these actors to give Shakespeare's "code" a bruising - and bruise it they do, in a manner that is nothing but entertaining for the audience.

Beginning with the Star Wars theme - a witty reference to the grandiose eloquence of the Bard and the enormity of the clowns' task - all pretence to seriousness is quickly and wisely cast aside when Patrick hurriedly reminds us that the actors need to move very fast. Cue Lynch playing the "Countdown" theme on a recorder, a distinctly funny play on words, and a "baptism of knowledge" for a deceptively bewildered McCabe before all three praise Shakespeare's plays in popular song.

As with Bruiser's successful adaptation of The 39 Steps, it's a simple, joyous celebration and reconstruction of great literary work.

But how can thirty-seven plays, not to mention 1,122 roles, be trimmed down to just over one and a half hours? Quite simple, really. Prioritise Shakespeare's two most famous plays and his core characters either side of a tribute to every other play or sonnet in passing, a sketch or a song.

So we get a twelve-minute Romeo and Juliet, half an hour for Hamlet, and... the rest for the rest. It's akin to Mel Brooks re-uniting with the late Gene Wilder and indulging themselves as wildly as they can in the name of excess and enjoyment.

The highlights are too numerous to mention - this is the sort of production where audience participation is common and The Bee Gees' "Tragedy" is sung at the very mention of tragedies! - but among the pick are the re-imagination of Titus Andronicus as the Great Roman Bake-Off (timely, no, what with the recent channel-hopping hullabaloo?), Othello performed in rap, The Tempest by way of Grease and South Pacific, McCabe's unusual reference to Boris Yeltsin ("Was he in Chernobyl Kinsmen?"), and the plays about monarchies re-enacted as, of all things, a football game.

Not to mention an added postscript of Hamlet performed both in less than one minute and (incredibly) backwards.

Amongst all the fun and frolics, there is substance. When Lynch is staggered by the "To Be, Or Not To Be" monologue, it seems satirical of how words can overwhelm actors based on their reputation and mystique.

If something is legendary, many of its blemishes will be ignored. Similarly, there's a truism in the patience required to truly enjoy Shakespeare - something Patrick briefly mentions. We're even allowed our own appreciation of the wondrous words when McCabe superbly delivers the monologue himself.

This abridgement of Shakespeare feels like McDonald’s with the added satisfaction of a good meal - education made instantly gratifying, but with a significantly more positive after taste. You’ll enjoy it in the moment and come away enlightened, something that can’t always be said about a trip through the Golden Arches.

Simon Fallaha

The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged) ran at The MAC until Thursday September 22 and will tour Northern Ireland and Ireland for two weeks until Saturday October 8.

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