Reduced-Shakespeare-Company-2-photocredit-Karl-AndreReduced Shakespeare Company

Bridport Arts Centre 27 June 2015

BR Rating *****

By John Pownall

There can be few theatre-goers who know nothing about the RSC, the Reduced Shakespeare Company that is, not their distant highbrow cousins from Stratford who share the same abbreviation. They’ve been performing the complete works of the bard in just over an hour and half for over three decades. So the prospect of their visit to Bridport drew a very large crowd to the Marlowe Theatre, a crowd that walked away at the end of the evening full of the thrill of live entertainment performed at high speed and with great energy by three wonderfully engaging actors.

The tall one, Gary Fannin, introduced the performance by holding up the complete works, all six pounds of it, and told us that to succeed they’d have to get through eight ounces every seven seconds. It soon became clear that their method here would be to skip large sections and to focus on the big names – Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet. As they said at one point, reducing the tragedies is the most fun.

Before the interval we got all the comedies rolled into one because, as the trio explained, they are all “crap”. The reduced, distilled Shakespearian comedy became, after some mangling and re-fashioning, Four Weddings and a Transvestite, primarily because, as they put it, Shakespeare tended to write the same comedy over and over again. In fairness, the true comedies do date less well than the darker and problem plays. The other difficulty here is that it’s harder to satirise comedy. It’s a clever trick to get them all over in five minutes so that the real fun can commence.

The same approach worked with the histories. The younger member of the trio, the hilarious David Ellis, suggested at one stage that Shakespeare should be less boring, that watching him should be more like watching sports, exciting and visceral. To achieve this, the three actors performed all the histories as a game of American football, the crown being thrown one to the other as the names unrolled, all the Henrys, and the Richards, and the (very) odd John.

Other highlights from the first half included a rap version of Othello, and a TV cook version of Titus Andronicus. As well as huge amounts of hilarity (some of it at the audience’s expense) there was also occasional education along the way. Who knew, for example, that the latter play, one of Shakespeare’s most immature, least loved pieces, was the most commercially successful during his lifetime, paving the way for him to develop as a writer off its proceeds? Little nuggets like this found their way into the madness, proving that the production is penned by writers with a real love of their subject.

The second half was devoted entirely to Hamlet. With no apology to fans of King Lear, this was described as the greatest play ever written in the English language. In the hands of the ‘The Bad Boys of Abridgment’ it almost retained its dramatic power as Ellis uttered the latter part of the famous soliloquy despite himself, gradually working away from mockery towards genuine feeling. This is proof that even when spoofing the poet-playwright’s most complex work, the great philosophy and psychological insight, will shine through.

Would Will himself approve? Certainly; the great man’s energy was always devoted to ensuring that his theatre was full; he was as much a businessman as a bard. The theatre was packed to the rafters – reduced, yes, but in no way belittled.