THEATRE: Brisk best of the bard

WHEN The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) was staged in Newcastle in 2006, the three actors all won CONDA nominations, with one of the trio, Daniel Stoddart, collecting the best professional actor award.

While some readers might be puzzled that a revue-style comedic look at Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets would be award material, anyone who has seen the fast-paced laughfest would appreciate the demands it makes on the actors’ skills.

Some of the 37 plays are dispensed with in less than a minute, with the actors frequently having to become new characters in a flash. And when they go off stage, it is usually to make a rapid costume change.

The Popular Theatre Company, which produced the 2006 staging, is mounting a new season of The Complete Works at the Civic Playhouse from February 20 to March 2.

Victor Emeljanow, the CONDA-nominated director of the first production, is again at the helm, with Daniel Stoddart also on board. The other two actors are Theo Rule and Callan Purcell, who have excellent comedy skills. 

Rule showed his amusing way with Shakespeare when he played Richard Tarlton, one of the title characters in Carl Caulfield’s 2010 play Shakespeare’s Fools. Tarlton, who had audiences roaring at his jokes, funny faces and amazing body movements, influenced Shakespeare’s writing of his comic characters.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) was written by three American actors, Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, based on their experiences doing mock-Shakespeare performances at fairgrounds.

They subsequently wrote a 30-minute comedic version of Hamlet for California’s the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and then incorporated it into a 97-minute, two-act work that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) was such a hit at Edinburgh that it was picked up for a season in London’s West End. It became London’s second-longest-running comedy, playing for just on 10 years.

And like Shakespeare’s works, it has been translated into dozens of languages and performed widely around the world.

The authors published a revised version in 2011. Victor Emeljanow said the Newcastle production would incorporate the best of the revisions, including the breaking-up of a sequence in which the actors originally read chunks of Shakespeare.

The actors are now seen on stage playing the characters that were in those chunks.

While this adds to the pressure  for the actors, Emeljanow said the trio were delivering fine performances in rehearsals.

“The show lives in terms of its actors,” he said. “Its success depends on their energy and inventiveness.”

One sequence has the trio delivering all of Shakespeare’s English history plays as a fast-paced game of rugby league, with the ball being a crown that is tossed between the players as they comment about the skills of each of the monarchs.

Shakespeare’s most bloody play, Titus Andronicus, in which characters regularly lose arms, legs and heads, is staged briefly as a television cooking show, The Gory Gourmet, in which the host and guests all have limbs missing.

All 17 of Shakespeare’s comedies are cleverly combined in a fast-paced sequence that shows how the writer reused characters and plotlines throughout his career.

The best-known works, including Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet, get the longest treatments, with the last having several “performances” of various lengths, including one that runs for 37 seconds.

The three actors are occasionally joined by stage manager Anna Milat, who sings, plays a guitar and roller-skates.

Designer Marion Giles is setting the play in a much reduced version of the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s time.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) can be seen at the Civic Playhouse from February 20 to March 2, with performances on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, plus 11am matinees on Thursday, February 21, Tuesday, February 26, Thursday, February 28, and a 2pm matinee on Saturday, March 2. Tickets: $35, concession $29, Civic subscribers $28, 16 and under $25. Bookings: Civic Ticketek, 49291977. 

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