Shakespeare’s quadcentenary in 2016 threw up all sorts of weird and wonderful projects (here’s one) as the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of his passing. So, it was entirely appropriate that clowns supreme Spymonkey decided to construct a show which concentrated on the deaths within his plays. I can’t say I’ve double checked but the 75 that occur in The Complete Deaths seems to form a pretty comprehensive list and provide the basis for a show that is about more than it, at first, seems.
Resident artistic director Toby Park has, supposedly, become disenchanted with the group’s former light- hearted work. He wants to do something of more significance and intellectual standing which pushes back artistic boundaries and challenges the bourgeois preconceptions of the audience and…well, you get the drift. Of course, he once again hasn’t reckoned with the wayward nature of his three companions who undermine his pretensions at every stage, gleefully breaking the rules he tries to impose on the structure. For instance he declares that they will only deal with the deaths directly experienced by the audience, i.e. those which take place on stage – no reported or implied deaths such as provided by “Exit pursued by bear” (shame, I was looking forward to that one).
Petra Massey wants to do Ophelia’s drowning but under the rules that doesn’t count and so she wages a constant campaign to get her reinstated, fuelling Park’s annoyance. Aitor Bassauri meanwhile fancies himself as a great Shakespearean actor and takes direct advice from an animated Bard who pops up on screen now and again. Of course, Bassauri is not up to it and his over gesturing, spitting Lear reveals just how inadequate he is, though to glorious effect. The fourth member of the team Stephan Kreiss has developed a grand passion for Massey which also threatens to undermine proceedings. As Park becomes more po-faced and dictatorial, his rules become ever more arbitrary; he won’t allow the play within a play that is the Death of Gonzago (Hamlet) and then in the next scene is performing in Pyramus and Thisbe the play within a play from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The others up the stakes in undermining him until they finally decide he must leave the group (cue Julius Caesar’s fatal wounding) and try and “get back to the funny”. So, there is plenty to be said about group dynamics and the business of creating a show as well as the burgeoning trend towards concept theatre – Ivo van Hove, to name but one, comes in for some sharp satirising.
But beyond this framework the show is mostly about Shakespearean death, an often messy and chaotic theme with little regard for rules and restrictions, just like real life…or rather real death. This is reflected in the number of ways the team come up with to present them to the audience. Few, if any, are done in a straightforward traditional way and the piece becomes a tribute to various theatrical styles. Richard III uses multi-media presentation including a backing film in which Shakespeare and Hitler have been mashed up (Park refers to the result as Shitler); Macbeth owes a debt to choreographer Pina Bausch; Cinna The Poet (Julius Caesar) is performed using puppets; Othello makes use of shadow play and so on. Sometimes the deaths are protracted – Mark Antony’s becomes an exercise in the audience reflecting on conflict in the middle east while Cleopatra’s becomes a highly polished cabaret dance routine complete with a chorus of asps. Sometimes they are presented in highly truncated form and overlap, meaning we can get through the various histories at pace. The comedies are of course by their nature woefully under-represented, but comedy itself is not.
Spymonkey bought in Shakespeare scholar and highly inventive actor in his own right Tim Crouch (I, Malvolio, I, Banquo and so on) to work with them and direct on this project. It proves to be a match made in heaven as there is an underlying seriousness and introspection which is brought to the surface alongside the clowning. This makes for a show which is probably more thought provoking and intellectually rigorous than others from the team but is still long on the humour for which they are renowned. Who knew that death could be so funny?
Production photos by Vic Frankowski
The Complete Deaths is available via the Spymonkey website. Click here for freestream (1 week only) or go to Vimeo OnDemand
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