It was in the late ’80s that US trio the Reduced Shakespeare Company first performed all 37 of the Bard’s plays in little more than an hour; since then, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) has remained one of the most popular shows on the worldwide theatrical circuit. Britain’s Popular Productions brings the show to the First Group Theatre this week, where three guys perform abridged versions of Shakespeare’s oeuvre in just 97 minutes. We caught up with two of them in between rehearsals to find out more.
You perform 37 plays in 97 minutes: that’s crazy.
The whole idea of doing 37 plays in 97 minutes is insane, but it’s inspired. The original production that the Reduced Shakespeare Company devised is so imaginative. I mean, Titus Andronicus is done as a cooking programme. A light-hearted, Tarantino-esque cooking programme.
For most people, Shakespeare can be a bit dry and dusty and boring, but that’s just because of the way it’s often presented in classrooms. Shakespeare is still being produced in cinema and the theatre because the stories still resonate, don’t they? They’re truisms. And this is one of the most joyful productions I’ve ever been involved with.
Will the audience actually learn something about Shakespeare, or is it just for a laugh?
Oh, absolutely. It’s done with laughs, but you get some of his most beautiful pieces of verse that are played absolutely straight. The ‘What piece of work is man?’ speech from Hamlet is performed in its entirety, not jokingly at all. Among the laughs you appreciate the beauty of the language.
What’s your favourite part?
I think it’s the Othello rap – it’s just so out there. And when we do Hamlet backwards in 30 seconds. Everybody in the audience gets to be involved in the production of Hamlet. But I don’t want to give too much away…
What have you learned about Shakespeare from this?
That he is, without question, the greatest playwright in the English language. Since I was at drama school I’ve mostly done thrillers because I’m tall and I look like a murderer, so it’s a real pleasure to do this.
You’ve played in this production before. Why did you want to be in it again?
I just loved the heck out of the play. If you have any interest in Shakespeare at all, it just makes it so accessible. Tragedies to comedies to histories, it’s a romp through all of it. We make it fun. We do all the histories as a football game. You’ve got the kings rushing up and down the field killing each other off, passing the throws from one generation to the next. It’s just a laugh, it’s a big laugh.
But can we learn anything from it?
We cover quite a bit of the text, and not just the text, but also that he was a formula writer, the type of formulas he used, what was popular in his time. You get a bit of everything. It’s as though you’re bringing Shakespeare to the common man. It’s similar to what he was doing 400 years ago. He was trying to appeal to not only the upper crusty types, but the common people as well, with plays such as Titus Andronicus, the gorier of his [work]; the crueller and the more dramatic. It’s still the way with Quentin Tarantino and all that, we still run out and see it.
What’s your favourite part of the show?
Hmmm… I don’t know. I’m not supposed to give away too much.
Nick said his favourite bit was the Othello rap.
Nick said the Othello rap? I can see that – Nick gets very, very excited during that. You know, Hamlet is so much fun. I know it shouldn’t be because so many people die. It sounds wrong to say Hamlet. But the way we do it is perhaps slightly more comedic. [Laughs.]
We hear you’re looking forward to inflicting extreme embarrassment on the audiences of Dubai.
That is true – there is a bit of cruelty. Not physical cruelty, certainly. But you know that teacher who loves to make you stand up and face the class? That kind of thing.
So we should avoid the front row?
No, no, by no means! In fact, at several points I may even be in the front row. So I will make sure everyone’s voyage is a safe one. Definitely don’t be scared! We won’t hurt you. We may tickle and cajole you, but that will be it.
Nov 2-7, First Group Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, 8pm. Matinee performances on Nov 3 and 6 at 2pm. Dhs160. See www.timeouttickets.com or call 800 4669. For more information, visit the official site at www.completeshakespeare.co.uk.