The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – Abridged burst into life at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987 as the creation of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Adam Long, Jess Borgeson and Daniel Singer. Such is its abiding popularity that it’s been performed ever since. 25 years on, Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Tread the Boards Theatre Company will be taking on the stomach-flipping challenge of cramming the complete works of Shakespeare into a mere 97 minutes (gulp!). I caught up with the three brave men stepping up to the helm this year: John-Robert Partridge, Dan Gough and Andrew Patrick.
Why do you think the show continues to be so popular, and was it at all daunting to fill such well-worn shoes?
I think the show is so popular because it’s accessible to both Shakespeare lovers and haters. There’s something for everyone, and if you don’t get the jokes about Shakespeare you can laugh at the fact that there’s a man running around the stage attempting to play a woman very badly. When we first thought about performing at the Fringe it was a little scary as the original company are so well-known and the production was such a success: would people be interested in seeing the show by a different company? However, we put our own brand of humour into the show and the fact it’s English rather than American makes the show more our own version of the original.
The show’s known for its spontaneity and for having no ‘fourth wall’: can audience members expect a fair amount of participation? Will you be improvising?
Well we don’t want to give away too much, but this show needs the audience for ideas, suggestions and willingness to give everything for the cause, including looking as stupid as we do (and, believe me, that is pretty stupid!). The show itself is scripted, but the structure of the script allows for a few adlibs to be thrown in, and dependent on audience reaction, we will have to improvise no doubt!
The show features lots of references to pop culture (rap, cooking shows etc.). Do you think this is a good way of introducing Shakespeare to a younger audience (the way ‘Horrible Histories’ does with history, for example)?
We think this is a fantastic introduction to Shakespeare. Many people that have watched the show have no understanding of Shakespeare (certainly not the more obscure plays like Titus Andronicus, Pericles or Troilus and Cressida), so by the end of the show the audience have laughed their socks off and learnt a little something, even something as simple as how many sonnets Shakespeare wrote. We’ve had a 9 year old in the audience on our tour and other children along the way and they’ve found it hilarious. It’s not really meant for the younger children (as it does contain some swearing), but innuendos are laughed at by the older audience members and the younger ones laugh at the silliness of it all.
There are so many adaptations of Shakespeare’s works set in just about every time-period and setting imaginable. Why do you think people have so much fun playing about with Shakespeare?
Well, from a business point of view, there are no performance rights, so people can do whatever they like. There are no rules, which can be incredibly freeing but can also be very dangerous and people can take it too far. But Shakespeare is global, and the reason he’s so popular is because of the relevance his works still have on modern society, so you can cover current topics. For example, Comedy of Errors is all about twins coming into a foreign country, so why not cover illegal immigrants? There really are no rules. Many people come to watch the shows purely to see how the actors will interpret the most iconic characters in Shakespeare. For me, Malvolio is Twelfth Night so I’m always intrigued to see how different actors play him.
Your credits listed on the Tread the Boards website include some seriously impressive, high-brow stuff: was it a treat to do something altogether comedic and a bit daft?
The three of us have worked together for a long time; we’ve known each other for about 5 years and we’ve acted and directed each other in many shows. This show definitely caters to each of our strengths. We all love comedy. The character Dan (played by John) is always the leader who attempts to keep the other two from killing each other. Jess (played by Dan Gough) is the bookish ‘intellectual’ and Adam (played by Andrew) is the cross-dresser who we found as we had no one left to cast. But seriously, this show is harder than some of the straight stuff. This show relies on laughter and energy and perfect comic timing, so a huge amount of rehearsal goes into putting on a piece of work like that.
3 men, 37 plays, 97 minutes: there’s a fashion in the Fringe for ‘cramming’ things into an hour or so, for example this year we have the complete works of Dickens, the history of the BBC and the complete Greek myths. What do you think draws people to take on this challenge?
It’s great for losing weight for a start! We’re on the Shakespeare diet and so far we’ve all lost 1/2 a stone, so we’re hoping to lose another 1/2 by the end of the Fringe (fingers crossed!). It’s also just about the craziness of attempting to cram so much into such a small space. It’s the challenge of how we can make this interesting, fun, accessible and still cover everything. Sometimes you have a moment of madness, say you will do something, then wake up the next day and think ‘oh my god I must be insane’.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – Abridged, theSpace@Venue45, 3-11 August, 8.05pm