The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield
The Reduced Shakespeare Company
Criterion
(2002)

Whoever came up with the idea of distilling over 100 hours of the plays of William Shakespeare into 100 minutes was a genius. The concept has now spread around the world and the likelihood is that the royalties will pour in for as long as the plays of the Bard remain popular. Since they have already been going strong for about 400 years, this could be a good pension plan.

This starts with a kind of prologue (during which we learn that William Shakespeare was responsible for the Nazi invasion of Poland) that helps the audience to get to know the actors and also act as a kind of warm up. The three parts are played by a pool of about 10 actors which is probably necessary as they work very hard both mentally and physically to give their whooping and whistling fans a good time.

Starting off with Romeo and a not very feminine Juliet, they manage to run through 36 of Shakespeare's 37 plays before the interval. If this doesn't seem possible, then maybe they cheat just a little bit along the way. They are very good at deriving laughs and extremely inventive:Titus Andronicus is played as a TV cookery show complete with almost high fives.

There are many other highlights from an Othello rap through a James Bond Macbeth to Julius Caesar which takes the prize for shortest rendition as it makes it from start to finish in under 30 seconds.

The strength of the cast is in their over acting as they happily quote and misquote Shakespeare at breakneck speed. They have something like a cross between Morecambe and Wise and Bill and Ted of Excellent Adventure fame. In many ways, a visit to reduce Shakespeare is like a trip to the United States. A large proportion of the audience will have come from there, as have the the cast and the stylish humour.

After the interval, we get no fewer than four different versions of Hamlet. The first involves audience participation and is reminiscent of a trip to the pantomime. There is lots of slapstick as well as much crude and often corny humour. Along with some large hairy men dressed as women, you have all of the ingredients that have made the traditional English Christmas shows so popular. The cast are also very happy to both use and abuse their audience and it is strongly recommended that when booking tickets the front row and end of while seats are avoided by those not wishing to be hit by flying actors or dragged, reluctantly on to stage.

The Reduced Shakespeare concept has many different attractions. It can clearly be used as an introduction to the works of William Shakespeare himself. Equally, it can be seen as some perfectly good comedy the subject matter of which is fairly much irrelevant or it could enable some Shakespearian aficionados to review life and take themselves a little less seriously. What is certain is that in the television age where an attention span of five minutes is regarded as remarkable, the breathless madcap humour is a sure fire winner.

As a teenage American said as the curtain came down, "that was so so good". It would be nice to think that as a result of her visit to the quickfire version of the Bard's works she might say the same of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet some time but maybe that is wishful thinking. There is some hope though as the only spells of silence throughout the performance were for two true Shakespearian soliloquies.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher