Since last Wednesday, I have had the pleasure of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s company, sitting in on their rehearsals, conducting interviews with Austin Tichenor, one of their managing partners, actors, writers and directors (Little Britain’s ‘write the feem toon sing the feem toon’ refrain springs to mind), and even share a beer over a game of basketball. This is all in the run up to the premiere of their tenth play William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) which opens at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. on Thursday 21st April 2016. This is the first a series of posts detailing my research trip to Washington.
Long Lost Shakes (as the RSC abbreviates it on Twitter) can be seen as both a spiritual successor to, and stylistic departure from, their first and most famous play, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). That piece, which premiered thirty-five years ago, began life as a two-man truncated version of Romeo and Juliet and an equally reduced Hamlet. This was partly inspired by Tom Stoppard’s own 15-Minute Hamlet, although there’s betters that effort by performing the play in under 3 minutes and, for an encore, going even faster and, finally, doing the whole thing… BACKWARDS! Honed at renaissance festivals in their native California, the RSC combined these with further material encompassing the rest of Shakespeare’s canon when they decided to play the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1981. The rest is most certainly not silence. Complete Works became London’s longest-running comedy, running for nine years in London’s West End at the Criterion Theatre. They have since produced eight new shows, reducing such weighty subjects as American history, comedy, sports, Hollywood, Christmas and the Bible, along with multiple radio and television appearances. Thus, I found myself sitting in on my very first rehearsal on Thursday 14th April 2016, quite literally pinching myself.
The company’s newest work is perhaps their most ambitious yet. Without giving too much away, if Complete Works was a play about the attempt of three actors to stage every single Shakespeare play, Long Lost Shakes depicts the reality of three actors staging such a fantasy. Conceived in the Folger Shakespeare Library vaults, Austin Tichenor and his co-Managing Partner, Reed Martin, were told by Folger directors and librarians that the academic holy grail for Shakespeareans would be a play written in Shakespeare’s own hand. In typically anarchic and irreverent form, the two men naturally decided to do it themselves. The play, then, is their most strongly narrative yet, following a ‘merry war betwixt’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Puck and The Tempest‘s Ariel. Such creative collisions fuel both the story and satire, with these two Shakespearean spirits facilitating inspired combinations as Lady Macbeth chiding Hamlet for his indecisiveness and Beatrice and Kate convincing Juliet that there’s more to life than boys.
I’m writing about the RSC for the first chapter of my PhD thesis on Shakespeare’s legacy across 21st century American pop culture. This research trip also happens to be my first parentless foray into the US and, put it this way, last time I was here, my primary interest was Sea World. I should probably watch Blackfish. As such, it’s been eye-opening to view the RSC’s high octane, self-confessed cartoonish take on Shakespeare, answering Orsino’s call in Twelfth Night to ‘give me excess of it’. This is sugar-coated, fast-food Shakespeare, delivering the playwright’s greatest hits thick and fast, whilst uncovering a couple of b-sides too. Tichenor describes the play as expansion as much as reduction, given the elevation of characters like The Comedy of Errors’ Dromio into becoming Juliet’s love interest. This has chimed with my experience of American life and pop culture, cramming cinemas, sports arenas, burger joints and bowling alleys into a single space of claustrophobic, technicolor superabundance. My interviews with Tichenor and the dubious decision to experience an American cinema-going experience by putting myself through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for a second time, also led me to see a bizarre but perhaps apt correlation between the RSC’s latest work and Zack Snyder’s critically panned superhero flick.
I’ll leave the B v S reviews to more experienced film goers but, for the record, first time around, I found it to be a bizarre yet fun explosion of a film, saved by the excellence of Ben Affleck’s brutal, battered Batman and Jeremy Iron’s sardonic, sharp-tongued Alfred Pennyworth. Second time around, the film merely washed over me, highly unmemorable and a mash-up movie clearly yearning to be a Batman solo effort. In conversation with Tichenor, however, we found ourselves discussing the ‘excess of it’ all, and a clear desire on the part of these filmmakers to meet the audience’s demand, not simply to for their heroes thwart evil schemes, but to see them trade blows with each other. Given the surfeit of superheroes we’re about to see onscreen, which is quickly starting to feel inescapable, directors and writers are clearly trying to find new ways to keep their potentially saturated audiences coming back for more. It is something which provides the entire premise of the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War, the poster of which is a carbon copy of B v S, merely trading Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill’s chiselled profiles, nose-to-nose, for those of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America.
The link was made when Tichenor informed me that, once the idea for envisaging how a lost Shakespeare play might look onstage was hatched, they decided to also make it his first play, focusing on the idea of a teenage Shakespeare cramming all his ideas into one mammoth text before realising that he could milk this across thirty-nine. The cast list of Long Lost Shakes runs to a colossal 47 characters played by – you guessed it – three actors. You may think that sounds excessive. Or you may consider that, within the theatrical world, outside the immediate mainstream, such radical, left-field ideas are to be taken for granted. Then realise that this number is measly in comparison to the ludicrous total of 67 players reported to feature in the daddy of all pop culture behemoths: Marvel’s forthcoming two-part film Avengers: Infinity War.
There’s something very American about this admirably brash desire to cram so many characters within one space. It’s certainly one of the primary criticisms levelled at B v S. Many suggested that the movie could work better as either a Batman or Superman solo film or that it would certainly have been aided by holding off on the inclusion of further Justice League players such as Wonder Woman and the Flash, in an attempt by DC to kickstart their own Cinematic Universe. I found more of the film’s failures to be narrative and tone-based, with too little light provided by Superman to contrast Batman’s shade. However, it’s fascinating that the very factors which resulted in this film’s downfall fuel the delights and success of the RSC’s latest offering.
The number of brilliant examples are too long to list, but a particular highlight must be when Lady Macbeth is conjured by Ariel onstage to drum Hamlet into action. Telling him “we’ll be here all night”, insisting “no, no pausing, Hamlet!” and, brilliantly rationalising that ‘you tend to be a ‘not to be’ Hamlet; / I need you to be a ‘to be’ Hamlet’, Tichenor explained to me that they want to explore how adding and subtracting characters from particular characters from different plays would speed up or slow down the drama. For instance, if Lady Macbeth was dropped into Hamlet, it’s clear that this ‘mean motivator’, as Ariel calls her, would have the whole revenge plot tied up in a trice, given how well her charms and enterprise convince Macbeth to act. After all, he is just as initially hesitant to kill a king as Hamlet.
Tichenor certainly saw the similarity between their’s and Hollywood’s endless quest to build worlds which encompass such collisions and mash-ups. He’s even admitted to me that the RSC were, in part, inspired by an actual comic book rendering of Shakespeare’s canon, Kill Shakespeare, which sees a plethora of his characters team up, Avengers-style, to murder their author. Why, then, does the RSC’s formula work where DC’s failed catastrophically and where, I fear, Marvel may fall in the future? Perhaps it’s to do with the way Tichenor and Martin, as writers, construct these combinations as isolated pleasures, offering their audience a taste of what such scenes might look like in a parallel Shakespearean universe, before returning to the narrative through-line of Puck and Ariel’s power struggle to determine who is the better magician. Again, the essence of the RSC’s success and DC’s failings are narrative based. Had B v S possessed a similar anchor, an identifiably human figure – something which the RSC’s comic triad always contains – then the tower-toppling spectacle of the film’s titular showdown may have carried more dramatic weight. There are no shortage of options: Lois Lane on Superman’s side and Alfred Pennyworth on Batman’s are just two names which spring to mind. Imagine an alternative movie, seen through the eyes of Lane’s journalist, reporting on the carnage and human cost of the film’s devastation whilst Alfred adds much needed, world-weary humour and perspective on the addition of alien beings to his planet. If Zack Snyder needs any tips on how to successfully enmesh cultural icons, I suggest he swings by the Folger Theatre from April 21st to May 8th to see how it’s done.
To hear more about my research and the RSC’s new play, listen to Austin Tichenor’s interview with me for the most recent addition of their weekly Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast: http://www.reducedshakespeare.com/2016/04/episode-488-studying-reduced-shakespeare