Criterion Theatre, London W1
Opened 7 March, 1996

The West End currently has no productions of Shakespeare plays, but has just bidden farewell to one collection of Bardic capers (The Shakespeare Revue) and now welcomes another. After several Edinburgh Fringes and a brief 1992 stint at the Arts Theatre, the other RSC finally arrives in the Criterion with The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged).

This trio of irreverent Americans claim to race through all 37 of old Bill's plays, plus the Sonnets, in 97 minutes. They succeed, too, albeit by dint of conflating all the comedies into a single convoluted plot involving six sets of identical twins and the inevitable cross-dressing, and presenting all the history plays at once as a game of American football (King Lear gets sent off for being fictional). Moreover, for no readily apparent reason, their Troilus And Cressida includes a small clockwork Godzilla.

There is little point in recounting particular gags (although I almost choked at Titus Andronicus and his daughter attempting to exchange high-fives with their stumps); the hilarity derives from the overall atmosphere of frenzied surrealism and the manic energy with which the three performers throw themselves into their antics. These are men who simply enjoy being silly, and are more skilled at it than most. David Letwin is the nearest they can boast to a straight-man, attempting to conduct the chaos with bursts of scholarly gibberish; Matthew Hendrickson has the air of an otherwise responsible person who falls to bizarrely shaped and Dayglo-coloured pieces under the pressure of the show; but the jewel in the RSC's tinsel-and-paste crown remains founder Adam Long.

Long is happy to be the company dork: always the one who has to wear the skirt, he keeps running offstage to chat up audience members, when he is not pretending to vomit into their laps. His dementia is shown to best effect in the version of Hamlet which takes up the entire second half, including a sequence in which the entire audience is called upon to represent the several levels of Ophelia's psyche. After dispatching the play in half an hour, the company then précis it into a couple of minutes, then into ten seconds, then do it backwards. It is clear throughout that they know their stuff, but nevertheless see no reason to show it the least vestige of respect.

On Tuesday evenings, the same triumvirate presents The Complete History Of America (Abridged), which features everything from Native American balloon-sculpture to a breakneck film noir rendition of the last fifty years of U.S. history, including Ronald Reagan as a ventriloquist's dummy and the obligatory Vietnam acid-trip sequence. The humour in this show is often more mordant and pointed, touching as it does on land-grabbing and genocide and involving a running Kennedy-assassination gag, but the principle is the same: daftness rules, whether it involves explorers Lewis and Clark as a vaudeville double-act or the trio escaping from the trenches disguised (anachronistically) as the Andrews Sisters singing a number about military homophobia.

Not all their material works equally well, but they move too quickly for their mistakes to catch up with them, and their disarming gung-ho commitment makes them and their shows impossible to dislike. I have no doubt that the company's other troupe is currently getting just as many laughs with The Bible The Complete Word Of God (Abridged) in Jerusalem. You couldn't make it up, but they can.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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