Shakespeare is never going to be my specialist Mastermind subject. Damn, until very recently I probably couldn’t even have correctly answered a pub quiz question about him. I’ve only really taken an interest in Shakespeare in the past couple of years, spurred on by this reviewing gig. We didn’t study him at school, our 1980’s Secondary English teacher opting for gritty working class literature and modern American classics, topped with a good sprinkling of Beatles lyrics. And although I’ve been an avid reader since learning the alphabet, Shakespeare was never really for the likes of me. At my first ever Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Bristol Old Vic in 2013, I was a little nervous – how on earth was I going to understand any of it? I hadn’t even wiki’ed the bare bones of the story. It turns out that it was one of my most memorable theatre experiences and I loved the dance of the script, the enchantment of the characters, quickly working out that it’s OK not to get all every word (ha! far from it) and to take joy from the bits that resonate.
This is one of the points that Take Thou That Theatre Company gets across in The Ruff Guide to Shakespeare, a romp of a show that celebrates ‘the life, the times and every single play – all in one hour!’ Marking the four hundredth anniversary of the playwright’s death, this serves as a hugely entertaining introduction to much that is Shakespearean, showing us that we needn’t pretend to understand everything and that, if we give ourselves up to his work, we can hear the beauty of those sonnets, the rhyme of his verse. And so, a cast of seven takes us on a journey of silliness. Especially formulated for younger audiences ( the billing says it’s suitable for Year 2, aged 7 +), this production contains a huge element of fun, using dance, music, good storytelling and lots of comedy (watch out for the Dad jokes!), whilst managing to fuse the modern with the Tudor, even referencing Uptown Funk and ‘wickedness’ and teaching us the origins of words such as ‘puke’ and the term ‘fair play’. Toby Hulse directs a piece of theatre that thrilled the packed early morning house at Bristol’s Redgrave Theatre and the man next to me wasn’t the only one belly laughing throughout the show, nor were he and his partner the only people watching without children. Nah, this is for all of us.
Our cast are second year students of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – Eleanor House, Laura Soper, Rachel Partington, Bradley Banton, Euan Shanahan, Luke Grant and Ellis Duffy – and all display why this acting school is so well respected, as they flit between the then and now, jumping around the stage, trying to fit in an awful lot of information at just the right pitch for their target audience. The group connects well, each actor bouncing her humour and skill off the next, delivering lines at break-neck speed yet managing to get the life blood of Shakespeare across, explaining what he did and why he might have done it. A definite community effort, I’d rather not single out any particular actor but Bradley Banton definitely has natural comic timing and a very good handle on camp (hurrah!), while Ellis Duffy has my daughter’s vote, maybe based on his Daniel Radcliffesque good looks, his backflips, his modernness, his tingling Prospero or his dress-wearing skills?
The audience is involved throughout, just as you imagine it would have been in the 16/17th Century and we’re pleased that we get to collectively choose to watch the tragedy of Hamlet in two minutes. Delightful, especially seeing as my 9 year old is currently reading the very abridged children’s version, though not as abridged as this! We also enjoy hurling Shakespearean insults at Duffy, who the rest of the cast are out to convince that Shakespeare really isn’t just a load of ‘blah, blah, blah.’ They succeed. But, my oh my, who knew that there were so many deaths in Shakespeare’s plays? We do now, after being subjected to a brilliant rampage of on-stage poisonings and stabbings, which illustrates the grizzly end that so many of his characters came to.
There exist few records of Shakespeare’s life, so much of the information about him is purely speculative but it all makes a good story, just like his plays. And Take That Thou really do make it a very good story indeed. I really enjoyed this Ruff Guide and if it was 20 minutes or so over the hour we were promised, that’s just fine. In fact, it’s a bonus.
Here’s what Celeste, aged 9, thought of it all: