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The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged)

Carol Flavell Neist

CUT SNAKE COMEDY COMEDY: A hilarious romp through the bard’s oeuvre – with rather a lot of cuts and quite a lot of laughs.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged)
From the company behind Perth’s major pub comedy attraction, The Big HOO-HAA (which now also plays in Melbourne) comes The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a hilarious romp through the bard’s oeuvre – with rather a lot of cuts and quite a lot of laughs.

The Cut Snake Comedy Company was also responsible for the 2007 hit Improvilicious, a history of theatre since 500 BC retold in 55 minutes. There was no script in that offering — just comedy-on-the-fly with abundant theatrical flair. The Complete Works, however, is definitely scripted, even though its performers are best known as improvisational comics. Created by American playwrights Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1987 and it later played at the Criterion Theatre in London — for nine years!

Obviously a play that can keep filling houses for nine years must be pretty good. It isn’t as if there was nothing else to see in London, after all. So what makes this play a crowd puller? Word-of-mouth plays a part, of course, but perhaps the big drawcard is Shakespeare’s name. The play opens with some chatty dialogue involving the audience, and we were asked very soon after lights-up if we had ever read or seen any Shakespeare. Over 90% of the audience put their hands up. Granted, most of us were exposed to Shakespeare in school at some point, but not everyone loves the bard enough to want to continue the association. People who hated Shakespeare at school are unlikely to fork out their hard-earned to see him sent up. So 90% appreciation of Shakespeare within an audience means the bard is still pulling the punters in, almost 400 years after his death.

And we Shakespeare geeks were not disappointed. There were enough selections from the original scripts in this play to remind us of just how bloody good the author was, and how well-schooled in his works are the players, Sam Longley, Damon Lockwood and Sean Walsh.

Somehow managing to touch on all Shakespeare’s plays and even the sonnets within a two-hour performance, The Complete Works is, as the publicity blurb assures us, ‘a roller coaster ride of wit and words starring Perth’s improvisation heavyweights and comedy favourites’. The actors’ familiarity with (and affection for) the bard and his works shines through in their sometimes disrespectful but always side-splitting performance.

Once the informal introduction of the play is over, the show proper gets underway with an extremely funny parody of Romeo and Juliet, followed by a send-up of Titus Andronicus, with that play’s blood, guts and horror reduced to an outline of a cannibalistic cooking show. Then we get Othello, performed as a rap song, complete with uproariously pathetic attempts at spinning on the floor on heads and backs. The histories are acted out even more rapidly than in The Wars of the Roses, with a football match as a metaphor for the conflicts, hastened along by a somewhat muddled line of succession as King John passes the ball to Edward III, among other solecisms. The tragedies are dismissed in short order as we quickly run though the stabbing of Julius Caesar, a hilarious death of Cleopatra, and a speedy run-down of Macbeth, complete with Scottish accents.

The comedies are dealt with by a synopsis of a composite plot, presented as if by three newsreaders. All the Shakespearean tropes are there, larger than life. Two sets of identical triplets, a thunderstorm to end all thunderstorms, disguises and mistaken identities — I would like to see that play performed!

The ‘apocrypha’ is dismissed in a few sentences, and in even less time it was decided not to present Coriolanus because of its offensive title. (Can’t go talking about anuses on stage, can we?) So all that’s left is Hamlet, and after one of the actors, unable to countenance playing the role of the Prince of Denmark, has gone off in fit of temperament, and another follows to try and bring him back, the third suggests a 15 minute interval.

The remaining actor welcomes us back after interval with a very brief discussion of the sonnets, holding the fort until the other two actors return. Sean Walsh, looking like Heath Ledger, talking like Chips Rafferty, and acting in the style of Marlon Brando, plays Hamlet in a broad Aussie accent (“Aw, mate, mate, I’m upset, mate”) while the other actors double the other roles. Halfway through, Walsh, having made a hash of the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, is apparently too intimated by the prospect of having to do the ‘faculties of man’ speech, so Longley takes over.

And something strange happened. Longley played it straight. His interpretation had a light touch, but this was Real Shakespeare. The house fell silent within the first couple of lines and remained spellbound until the end of the speech, their focus broken only by tumultuous applause. Longley’s timing was breathtaking. It takes a consummate actor to turn a laughing audience into a serious one in the space of a couplet, and I, for one, stand in awe of his skill.

But just as quickly, the trio had us laughing again. Having disposed of the entire Royal House of Denmark in about 20 minutes, they proceeded to do it again in five, and then again in less than one. Then they did it backwards. This Hamlet really is the play’s pièce de résistance and Longley, Lockwood and Walsh did it every justice. We went home laughing.

My only grizzle about this production was the absence of a program or even a cast list. I was obliged to spend several hours researching the play and the cast, and I imagine other reviewers are in the same boat. Surely it wouldn’t be too hard to run off a PR handout for us poor benighted critics?

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
Written by: Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield
Performed by: The Cut Snake Comedy Company in association with Shakespeare WA
Subiaco Arts Centre
June 11 - 12 and 14-18

Video: The Reduced Shakespeare Company perform an excerpt from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Carol Flavell Neist has written reviews and feature articles for The Australian, The West Australian, Dance Australia, Music Maker, ArtsWest and Scoop. She was reviews editor for the now defunct Specusphere magazine and, writing as Satima Flavell, has also published poetry and fantasy fiction.