WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S LONG LOST FIRST PLAY (ABRIDGED)
The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th February, 2017
The Reduced Shakespeare Company is back. Building on the success of earlier, brilliant shows (The Complete Works, The Bible) this time the premise is the discovery of a manuscript – beneath a car park in Leicester, of course – of Shakespeare’s first attempt at dramatic endeavour. It turns out old Will had all his ideas at once and bunged them all in one play. So begins a mash-up of Will’s most famous lines, scenes and characters. If you’re a Shakespeare nerd, you’re in for a good time.
Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s (and Shakespeare’s) script is clever, bordering on genius, throwing out such wonderful clashes as Dromio and Juliet, Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, King Lear and the Three Witches… hijacking lines out of context, or rather giving them new context as befits the skit. It makes you realise how many recurring ideas Shakespeare had.
If you’re not a Shakespeare nerd, you may be somewhat bewildered, but I think there’s enough daftness and comic invention to keep you laughing. References to contemporary culture abound: Beyonce, for example, and a High-Street purveyor of baked goods that rhymes with legs. The show posits a theory that Walt Disney is a latter-day Shakespeare – but, if you’re not a Disney nerd either, you might not catch all the jokes.
The cast of three work apparently tirelessly to keep the pace fast and the laughs coming. Joseph Maudsley’s little mermaid Ariel is a joy, James Percy makes a formidable Lady Macbeth, and Michael Pearson’s ukulele-strumming Richard III is a scream – but much of the fun comes from the quick changes and the surprising juxtapositions of characters and speeches.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a ‘merry war’ between Ariel and Puck, using their magic to interfere with characters’ lives. It takes the Bard himself to appear as deus ex machina to sort it all out at the end. The first act climaxes in a slapstick tempest, with audience participation – it is this kind of daftness everyone can enjoy. Director Austin Tichenor doesn’t let the action stagnate and I wonder if a smaller, more intimate venue might assist with audience engagement – it would certainly save the cast a lot of running around; they have to cover a lot of ground to maintain the pace.
It is part of the company’s ‘brand’ to perform with American accents. Somehow this makes their handling of the material crasser but no less clever. You may not appreciate all the in-jokes and literary allusions but you cannot fail to admire the energy of this smartass show, performed by a trio of exquisite comic players.