The unique reworkings of Shakespeare lined up for 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Shows include Billy's Birthday Bash: Let's Party Like Its 1564, Blind Hamlet, Brave Macbeth, Et Tu Elvie, Reduced Shakespeare Company and Shit-faced Shakespeare
This article is from 2014.
As his 450th birthday is marked, the Fringe shows no signs of abandoning the Bard’s back catalogue. Gareth K Vile chats to directors, producers and writers who are all set to bring us some more of that Will power
‘It’s hard to separate the existence of British theatre from the fact of Shakespeare. After all, there isn’t another culture that can boast not only the world’s greatest playwright but one of the greatest writers ever to have lived,’ says Ramin Gray, artistic director of the Actors Touring Company. The proliferation of Shakespeare across this year’s Fringe might well be a specific tribute to mark the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth, but every year seems to offer a similarly large variety of adaptations of Macbeth, Hamlet and even the occasional comedy.
Peter Phillips, producer of Et Tu Elvie, has a simple explanation for Shakespeare’s continued importance. ‘Timelessly good stories and powerful characters, plus a brand that is self-perpetuating.’ Both Phillips and Gray offer fresh adaptations of Shakespeare: Gray has a new play, Blind Hamlet, from Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour (best known for White Rabbit, Red Rabbit), while Phillips uses Shakespeare’s famous ‘seven ages of man’ speech to reveal that the life of another king, Elvis Presley, was a Shakespearean tragedy. Perhaps it is this strength of the brand and the stories that lend Shakespeare a special flexibility. Even the children’s section has a healthy selection of adaptations: The Playground Theatre are holding Billy’s Birthday Bash: Let’s Party Like It’s 1564! and the tale of Brave Macbeth is being retold by Captivate Drama. For adults, there’s the perennial late-night comedy Shit-Faced Shakespeare, in which one cast member tries to perform while ‘tired and emotional’.
Gray is especially positive about the continued importance of Shakespeare. ‘If theatre plays such a central role in our culture, then that is in great part due to the scale of Bill’s achievement,’ he says. ‘I don’t, for example, feel at all threatened by him or hold that new writing is stunted in any way by Shakespeare.’
The Reduced Shakespeare Company made their name by editing the complete works into an imaginative and very funny compendium. Returning to the Fringe for the first time in nearly a decade, writers Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin found that the classics made ideal bite-sized entertainment for Renaissance Fair audiences. ‘It started as a busking act,’ Martin remembers. ‘Everyone in the company has a good background in Shakespeare – we get our facts correct, unless we are twisting them for comic effect – but it was designed as an entertainment, not an academic exercise.’
The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works (Abridged) has become a touring staple since the 1990s and despite their witty irreverence, they see a connection with the source author. ‘We are all men, like the companies of Shakespeare’s time,’ laughs Tichenor. ‘And we aim to entertain. Although he has become high art now, he was an entertainer. If he were alive today, he’d be writing film or TV.’
Phillips has adopted the RSC’s approach – albeit to forge a tragedy – in utilising Shakespeare as a template. ‘A few years ago, the theatre venue we use for an Elvis Festival in Porthcawl was staging one of those “complete works of Shakespeare” shows,’ he says. ‘And it gave me the loose idea of matching bite-size, well-known pieces of Shakespeare with an appropriate Elvis song; for example the letter scene in Romeo and Juliet with “Return to Sender”.’
This evolved into something grander. ‘There are seven scenes in the show which represent stages of Elvis’ life, from Memphis in the mid-50s when he transformed modern music to his lonely and tragic death in Graceland. The Shakespearean parts are played by actors while a professional Elvis tribute artist performs the songs.’
Gray’s Blind Hamlet is equally inventive with the source. ‘It came out of a conversation with Nassim Soleimanpour when we discovered a shared love of the party game Mafia and Hamlet,’ he says. ‘Nassim’s starting point was the proposal to mash up the two things, to force Hamlet through a Mafia-like structure. And I could immediately see the resonances, the overlapping of doubt, deceit and play.’
Although the particulars of these versions – the RSC’s roots in that American tradition of the Renaissance Fair, Phillips’ contemporary icon and Gray’s interest in game play – are all modern, the apparent irreverence for the sanctity of Shakespeare’s text is not. Indeed, it was abridged, truncated and rewritten versions of King Lear and co that kept Shakespeare on the stage for much of the 19th century. And the RSC, at least, keep the stories: the actor-managers of the Victorian era had a habit of giving Lear a happy ending. Equally, all of these versions pay respect to the power of theatre as a medium for communication, and the importance of the live audience. Reed and Tichenor declare that ‘we are the audience! We come from the audience! If you can’t break the fourth wall and have fun with it, you might as well put it on TV!’
Gray, on the other hand, is willing to admit that ‘there will be engagement with the audience in traditional and non-traditional ways. I won’t say more than that: you journalists are always trying to pluck out the heart of our mysteries … ’
Alongside the proliferation of Macbeth productions – 2014 is another bumper year for the Scottish play – and attempts to ‘get back to the original’, these three versions pay a far greater compliment to the birthday bard.
They affirm that his work is still relevant, not by invoking some universal values or praising the poetry but by following his attitude towards performance. Intelligent, but not stuffy, entertaining but not trivial, Shakespeare’s craft as a playwright embodies these qualities and his sense for a good yarn.
Blind Hamlet, Assembly Roxy, Roxburgh Place, 0131 623 3030, 2–25 Aug (not 12, 18), 2.50pm, £14–£15 (£13–£14). Previews 31 Jul & 1 Aug, £10.
Et Tu Elvie, C, Chambers Street, 0845 260 1234, 30 Jul–25 Aug, 10.55pm, £8.50–£10.50 (£6.50–£8.50).
Billy’s Birthday Bash: Let’s Party Like It’s 1564!, Assembly George Square Gardens, George Square, 0131 623 3030, 2–25 Aug (not 18), 2.10pm, £9–£10 (£7–£8). Previews 31 Jul & 1 Aug, £6.
Brave Macbeth, Famous Spiegeltent, St Andrew Square, 0844 693 3008, 1–25 Aug (not 4, 11, 18), 11am, £10 (£32 family ticket).
Shit-Faced Shakespeare, Underbelly, Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 2–25 Aug, 10.20pm, £10–£11.50 (£9–£11). Previews 30 Jul–1 Aug, £6.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised), Pleasance Courtyard, Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 17–25 Aug, 4pm, £12–£17 (£11–£16).