The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
The National Production Company
Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh
13-16th June, 2018
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) has been a consistent crowd-pleaser since its debut in 1987. A Fringe Festival stalwart, the play has the survival abilities of a cockroach, and the script itself is so tried and tested that it would seem that it would take some effort on the part of a performance troupe to make it anything less than utterly charming and delightful for an audience. The brain child of American writers Adam Long, Jess Winfield and Daniel Singer, The Complete Works… is a light-hearted and irreverent romp through all 37 of the Bard’s plays, consisting of slap stick, farce and pantomime-esque audience participation.
In many ways, this winning formula serves The National Production Company well in their incarnation of the play, currently appearing at Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy. The fledgling company have an admirable stab at it, employing the requisite high-energy and fast pace, and adhering stolidly to the well-loved, conventional features of the play – the sonnets are handed out on paper, Shakespeare’s biography is confused with that of Adolf Hitler, Titus Andronicus is presented in the style of a cookery show, MacBeth is performed in see-you-jimmy hats and in terrible Scottish accents, Othello is a rap, the ‘Kings’ plays are transformed into a slow-motion American football game.
One of the elements of the play that makes it satisfying for performers is the capacity for improvisation and the requirement for cultural references to be updated and tailored to specific audiences and locations. The play presents many opportunities for The National Production Company to put their stamp on it and really make it their own, but they choose to play it a little too safe. The result is that some of their references seem unimaginative, at points bordering on cliché. Even the decision to use Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ to bookend the show feels like it would’ve had more cache during the Rickrolling phenomenon/Astley renaissance ten years ago.
As the play is now 31 years old, some elements of it are badly in need of updating. The implication that a man in a dress doing a high-pitched voice is automatically hilarious doesn’t sit comfortably in 2018. One line about ‘not making things gendered’ in this version seems to acknowledge this, but so weakly, it somehow manages to make it worse. Similarly, the idea that a Southerner affecting a Yorkshire accent is inherently funny has gone out of fashion since Michael McIntyre was called out for classism by justifiably irked northern viewers several years ago. Presenting two men kissing as something to laugh at – really? Still?
It’s a shame that these wide-open opportunities to innovate were missed by The National Production company, as they are clearly a very talented bunch with heaps of passion. Bits of the performance were absolutely pitch-perfect and well-executed – the demanding final scene, with three versions of Hamlet performed at breakneck speed and backwards, and the tightly choreographed prologue to Romeo and Juliet were particular highlights. While a little disappointing, their decision to stick to established formulas is understandable. This was a solidly enjoyable performance, but I think much bigger and better things await The National Production Company.