The British production of Complete Works… recently closed its nine-year run at the Criterion Theatre in London. An impressive run for a Shakespeare parody in England. In Complete Works…, three actors really do perform the complete works of Shakespeare (including the sonnets), albeit in a highly abbreviated form. Despite what the concept implies, “Complete Works…” requires no deep knowledge of Shakespeare to appreciate it (though a moderate amount would help).
How do they do 37 plays in 90 minutes? Well, they cheat a little; the entire history cycle is told straight through, and all of the comedies are cunningly amalgamized into a single play about multiple sets of cross-dressing, identical twins, and a pair of Dukes.
The tragedies get more stage time, since it’s more fun to spoof something serious. The show starts out with a fairly lengthy Romeo and Juliet parody, then deals with Titus and The Scottish Play at length too. Hamlet, of course, is given a deeper degree of analysis, and the entire second act of the show is devoted to the Melancholy Dane.
The project originally began as a 20-minute version of Hamlet, augmented later with a similar Romeo and Juliet. These two scenes are light-years ahead of the rest of the show, which was slowly developed later. There’s a considerable amount of audience interaction, which seems like a cheap way to pad the show up to its 90-minute running time. One sprawling scene brings an audience member onstage to play Ophelia, while the rest of the audience screams out lines from Hamlet, while doing “The Wave.” All of which takes around 10 minutes, just for the payoff of one gag about Ophelia being a complex character.
It has to be pointed out that even the weaker parts of the show are still funny. There’s some genuinely clever material here, but it has a lingering sense that it all should be funnier, and could be funnier overall if the padding were kept to a minimum (or even cut out).
The three actors here were given a tough task, but they did an admirable job. Patrick Toon often played the intellectual, the leader of the gang so to speak, and frequently found himself alone on stage, feigning nervousness convincingly. Rob Seitelman was the corpulent cross-dresser whose recurring gags involved screeching in a falsetto, pretending to vomit on the audience, and running, screaming from the theatre when faced with the challenge of performing in Hamlet. Alex Domeyko, who eventually played Hamlet, spent the show vibrating with energy as though in the midst of an improv show, prepared to fire in any direction. The three different types of performance didn’t entirely mesh together, though -- again, creating a feeling that it should have been even funnier than it is.
Director Neal Freeman did bring out the fun of this show, but might be held responsible for the fact it seemed to be running in second gear. There was a tremendous amount of energy present, but it was often unfocused. The constant physical comedy worked, but men in drag and people running around screaming tend to get laughs regardless.
Despite everything said here, Complete Works… is still a very funny show, and an excellent primer for people who’d like to learn more about Shakespeare but don’t want to sit through the 117 hours it would normally take to see his complete works, unabridged.
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Copyright 2005 Charles Battersby