On your marks ...

The alternative RSC.  Nice wig, mate. Christina Patrick

The work of the venerable Bard has been through a lot, really, if you think about it. Hamlet replicated in full on mirrored 70mm by peroxide upstarts, Verona’s most famous lovers messing around in fish pools and neon lit crypts and Richard III rampaging across England’s green and pleasant land in a tank . And that’s just on film. Some folk just can’t let a guy decompose in peace.

Least of these are the Reduced Shakespeare Company, who shamelessly take each iambic pentameter and heartfelt soliloquy and mash them into a big, bold technicolour splash of slapstick and silliness and all 16 comedies in about 30 seconds. (Including The Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale. Why? “Because of their unbelievable plots, shallow characterisation and juvenile themes”, naturally...) They rampage through England’s biggest export with a breezy American confidence, skidding through all 37 plays in 97 minutes or so, plus the odd sonnet and a quick aria somewhere in there too. Some plays are honoured with more time then others: Romeo and Juliet gets a positively full text compared to As You Like It, while Hamlet is done literally every which way and very loosely indeed. It’s not as side splittingly hilarious as I’d been led to believe, it’s just too obvious and broad to be so. This is Shakespeare goes Cartoon Network, Troilus and Cressida on TNT . It is funny, of course - slapstick has always been funny, as have men dressing as women, and dragging members of the audience up on stage to play a confused Ophelia while the rest of the theatre divides into vocal sections to represent her id, ego, and super ego. But the real fun isn’t just in the silliness, its in the recognition, which is why, despite the kids in the audience, the adults probably enjoyed it more. A lot of the jokes are older than the Criterion (“What’s your name?” “Mumble” “I’m sorry?” “Mumble” “No. I heard you, I’m just sorry!” Boom, boom.) and many involve complex subtleties like mewling, puking, groin thrusting, and lots of audience humiliation. But that’s always good.

The History Plays as an American football game with crown instead of ball is absolutely inspired, and probably more appropriate than any other analogy, and this, like every other piece in the performance, is full of energy and manic enthusiasm. Plus a resolute willingness, in fact intention, on the cast’s part to make absolute idiots of themselves. I laughed. A lot. In fact, a lot more than the small sproglet sitting behind me, who was at least a grown up eight, and terribly, terribly cool, because the jokes weren’t funny. Oh no. I know this because after each burst of daftness and the accompanying gales of adult laughter, a small voice would pipe up with “Oh ha ha. Fun-neeeee.”

Which probably tells you all you need to know, really: if you are actually a child, you’ll be far too grown up to like it. But if you’re old enough to know better, you’ll be fine.

Criterion Theatre, Picadilly 0171 369 1737

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