Table Top Shakespeare: Drama With Humour

How do you fit an entire Shakespeare play, with all its drama, humour and beauty into 40 minutes? The answer is that you can’t. But what you can do is strip it down to the bare bones of its basic plot. The British theatre company Forced Entertainment is performing all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays as part of the Foreign Affairs Festival hosted by the Berliner Festspiele. But in order to fit it into the duration of nine days, each performance will be squeezed into a time frame of less than an hour.

Friday evening was the second day of the project, and included performances of Pericles, Richard II, All’s Well That Ends Well, and King Lear. The performance space was tiny, which would explain why Berlin Logs had trouble securing press tickets. (Unfortunately this review can only take into account the first three plays of the evening. King Lear – one of Shakespeare’s most popular – was unsurprisingly sold out.) A single actor narrated each play, seated behind a table for its duration. Instead of actors or scenery, the only props were everyday household items used to represent the characters. Forced Entertainment’s Shakespeare was barely recognizable: they had turned Shakespeare’s plays into 40-minute monologues.

Clearly a considerable amount of Shakespeare was lost. Yet this did not mean that nothing was gained. Their minimalist presentation made for an especially intimate setting. Although the high drama and action provided by the physical presence of the characters was missing, what we had instead was the feeling of being directly spoken to. In removing the actors and replacing them with objects, it took the attention away from the characters that populate the plays, and towards the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s plot.

The majority of the performance’s success nevertheless depended greatly upon the actors. The flowery speeches and dramatic action may have been absent, but in stripping the plays so far back, it meant that every tiny gesture, slight change in intonation or faint alteration in facial expression would be scrutinised.

This challenge was successfully met on Friday night. Pericles in particular was always going to be difficult. The play has been criticised for its undramatic structure and the plot’s reliance upon too many coincidences. It is difficult to disguise these faults in such a minimalist production, and Cathy Naden as the narrator did not attempt to. Instead of trying to explain the inexplicable bad luck for Pericles to be caught in two life-threatening storms or how his wife miraculously came back to life, she stated the events quite simply. With only a wry and knowing smile, Naden turned these problems into jests, provoking some chortles from the audience.

In cutting Richard II down to 40 minutes, Forced Entertainment had to decide which moments they could linger on, and which only required a hasty explanation. The king’s response to John of Gaunt’s approaching death was bluntly put into a single word: “good”, which sufficed to show Richard’s insensitivity. In contrast, Terry O’Connor as narrator drew out Richard’s eventual decision to resign and retreat. Although drastically shorter than the original, it was enough to make the audience sympathise with a king better suited to poetry than ruling.

Force Entertainment’s concise performances were also capable of producing humour in All’s Well That Ends Well too. Claire Marshall as narrator made Parolles’s suggestion to Helena that she should lose her virginity as soon as possible even more comically crass. She was the master of understated humour. There was only a hint of sarcasm as Marshall explained the noblemen’s simplistic attitude towards violence: “Yes war! Because we are soldiers”. And with only a slight cheeky glance at the audience, she humorously conveyed that sexual intercourse was taking place.

One might assume that cutting Shakespeare down to 40 minutes would mean losing much of the intensity from the original plays. But the experience was even more relentless. These productions were extremely compact, requiring a high degree of concentration. If you are looking for full-bodied Shakespeare, then Forced Entertainment’s productions will disappoint. But what they do provide is a uniquely intense and compact experience of all 36 works from this master dramatist.

‘Tabletop Shakespeare’ continues at the Berliner Festspiel until 4 July. Tickets can be bought from the festival’s website. It is also possible to live stream the productions here

Hazel is a an arts and culture writer based in Berlin. Classical music might be her speciality, but all things artsy, cultural and interesting also fit her palette. Follow her on Twitter with @hazel_rowland or read her blog here.

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