AS FLIES TO WANTON CLOWNS…
You don’t often see Queen Gertrude in Hamlet played by a short bearded Spaniard in a rainbow unitard with flamenco frills. But this is the Brighton Festival marking the quatercentary of Shakespeare’s death launching, jointly with Northampton, the latest frolic from Spymonkey. Beloved from Moby Dick, Oedipussy etc – but lately often turning up separately – the quartet are, triumphantly reunited: chunky Aitor Basauri, looming German Stephan Kreiss, anxious straight-guy Toby Park and the peerless Petra Massey (nobody will rapidly forget her CleoPetra belly-dance with asps as nipple-tassels and worse).
The challenge was to perform the 75 onstage deaths in Shakespeare plays , including the “black ill-favour’d fly” in Titus Andronicus and a number of bafflingly forgettable random nobles in the farther reaches of the lesser History plays (Gough, anyone? Stafford?). So off they go, the four horsemen of the Ridiculypse, armed with rubber axes, chiming cudgels, barmy costumes, rubber noses, horses’ heads, grim puns (“No, Polonius was stabbed in the ARRAS, Aitor!”) innumerable property houseflies on wires tracked by handheld cameras, and some Pythonesque video animation. Plus, of course, property swords with which repeatedly to perform what the Art of Coarse Acting immortally describes as The Royal Shakespeare Company Armpit Death.
Groan? If you want. If your mouth does fall naturally into a grim line, even at a Festival, and you deep pratfalls fit only for prats, stay away. Don’t go spoiling it for the rest of us. But you’d miss an intriguing oddity. Spymonkey are always armed with fearless physicality and pin-sharp comic timing but on this occasion their adaptor and director is Tim Crouch. Who is a considerable Shakespeare man, intriguing subverter in his own shows I, Malvolio and I, Cinna. In other work (remember An Oak Tree, reviewed on this site http://tinyurl.com/hpgq447 ) Crouch displays a skewed seriousness about life, death and grief, and a fearless meta-theatrical willingness to mess with the form.
His essay in the programme , and one from the Oxford scholar Simon Palfrey, has real seriousness. That gives an enjoyable oddity to the fact that in the opening moments and in interludes, Toby Park’s mock sententiousness – reiterating the need for art to disturb not just amuse – is instantly sent up by the appearance of Basauri in a codpiece, Stephan as a giant fly in a fur tutu (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods…”) or Massey wailing a demand to play Ophelia. What saves it from the risk of being annoying is not only the helpless laughs – which are frequent – but Crouch’s disciplined timing.
A massive set-piece, like the mincing machine into which most of the cast of Titus Andronicus are fed to jolly music, will alternate with something quicker, perhaps quieter. There are enough of Shakespeare’s words to give an odd chill, and surreal dark moments like Massey in a hospital gown and drip speaking various death-speeches straight while Park plays “Fear no more the heat o’the sun”.
But during that, there also happens to be an intense fight between the other two, circling the auditorium. Another running gag has Stephan’s passion for Petra; another Basauri’s delusion that he might become an RSC star by learning to stand with feet apart, “point at things, roll your r’s and shout”. Conversely we have a beautiful parody of German expressionist theatre (“We are all kunst”) with slow stylized moves in baggy y-fronts to Park’s haunting clarinet, and red paint getting gradually out of control.
But in reality none of it is out of control: it skips along on tiptoe, with just enough moments of sudden depth to make the sensibility stumble. It knows where it’s going. We, the Spymonkey and Crouch faithful, are happy to tag along.
at Theatre Royal Brighton till Sunday
Then touring through spring, http://www.spymonkey.co.uk