Footsbarn Theatre at Shakespeare's Globe, London, UK.
Created by Footsbarn Theatre, especially for Shakespeare's Globe, A Shakespeare Party is a joyous celebration of life and a spectacular tribute to The Bard and his works. Developed from improvised scenes as 'free-style' theatre, the result is a wild and riotous carnival which includes songs, slapstick, circus skills, puppetry, music, dance, mime, and inventively re-imagined scenes from Shakespeare's most well-loved plays.
Beginning with a parade of masked figures and a giant puppet, the show then takes a more abstract turn as sheeted figures sing around a bed. Mercutio's 'Queen Mab' speech is delivered by several grotesques as the fairies and animals that he describes come to life on the stage. A rather short-tempered Nurse calls for Juliet ('My dove! Hedgehog!'), and Romeo sings to his love as she several times crosses a tightrope across the stage. Tightrope walker Coline Rigot makes this feat appear even more gaspworthy as she plays a violin whilst walking across.
Music is provided by 'The Maggot of Venice': a life-size maggot who sings about the joy of eating Yorick and other well-known (dead) characters. In the second half she follows this with an encore about death and how we should all 'Be Merry' in spite of it. There is also a wonderful song called 'Stratford Bill', performed as a rather jolly requiem by a group of his contemporaries who just 'didn't know he was ill'.
Several scenes are taken up by the mechanicals from A Midsummer Night's Dream accompanied by a furry-legged and demon-masked Puck. These men are grotesques and yokels: Quince with big nose, ghostly-faced Flute, and Bottom with fat belly, straw hair and a huge overbite. Their play rehearsal is re-imagined as one where Bottom gets excited about the trunk full of 'properties', cries when he isn't given a costume in which to play Pyramus, and accidentally sticks a sword into Peter Quince's nether regions. The bawdy humour continues when they later present their play to the Duke and Duchess (more huge puppets).
This production just keeps piling on the acts, layer upon layer. Romeo and Juliet are presented as puppets, their speeches given by two old people in rocking chairs, reading aloud the books in their laps (one of which is an enormous volume of 'The Complete Works of Peter Quince'). Macbeth tells the audience knock-knock jokes and flicks the contents of his chamber pot at them, and Ophelia descends from the sky in the form as an aerialist. Words are deliberately mispronounced (Pie-RAR-mus, Noon-ies tomb), and the three witches stir up a brew of mushrooms which are flung back at them as human limbs and intestines. One piece that went down extremely well was a three-headed Hamlet (three actors, one costume, two arms), trying to memorise his speech. 'To be - or not - to be' he begins. 'That is the, er, er, um...'. 'QUESTION!' shout back the audience with great relish. Throughout the rest of the soliloquy he is prompted by a jester, who mimes the speech in a bizarre version of Charades. 'The thousand natural shocks/That flesh is - Hairdo!' proclaims Hamlet proudly. The hilarity is only added to by the obligatory 'Little Willy' - complete with receding hairline and droopy moustache - who pops up from Hamlet's lap in the midst of his speech.
Footsbarn Theatre - here made up of sixteen actors of ten nationalities - have created a true gem with their Shakespeare Party. The theatre programme doesn't name characters or roles, it merely lists the company and the skills that they contributed to the production, each member of the troupe valued on their own merit. There is no doubt that this is a finished show, no longer a work in progress, and yet it seems a little raw, a little rough around the edges in a way that makes it fresh and alive. When a gag involving magnets and hairpieces failed to work, no one was put off their stride, instead the failure was embraced, with consummate professionalism, as just another joke.
At the end of the show, confetti and streamers poured down and balloons were thrown to the audience. The atmosphere was more rock-concert than Shakespearean theatre, leaving the audience feeling inspired and renewed. This is must-see theatre for Bardophiles everywhere and will be enjoyed equally by theatregoers with no previous knowledge of the Bard or his plays. My only caveat is that in playing for just five performances you're likely to have missed it by the time you hear how truly spectacular a show this is.
This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.