If you told me a few days ago I would feel genuine empathy for a bottle of Tabasco, I’d have probably laughed in your face and called you crazy. But that’s how I found myself during an afternoon of Table Top Shakespeare.

Complete works: Table Top Shakespeare by Forced Entertainment as part of the Barbican Shakespeare Weekender: Play On has undertaken the task of performing all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays in hour long condensed versions. The twist – all the characters are played by ‘a set of unlikely domestic objects’, such as a can of Heinz Baked Beans, a bottle of carpet cleaner and a tube of Berroca. A bottle of olive oil was featured in the starring role of Julius Caesar, which I personally feel was a missed opportunity for a bottle of Caesar dressing, but hey ho.

These charming retellings are told by a rotating cast of 6 performers; Robin Arthur, Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, Cathy Naden and Terry O’Connor, in the cosy atmosphere of the pit theatre in the Barbican. The intimate space worked perfectly for the Jackanory-esque story time feel to the performances. I was treated to the tales of Julius Caesar, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Troilus and Cressida. What was great about this was I had never seen these plays in their entirety. The introduction of a new spice bottle character evoked a chuckle from the audience, but the intriguing story took over from that original amusement. The deadpan comedy, ad libs and simplicity add a refreshing twist and keep the audience captivated, despite the lack of Shakespearean language – or dialogue at all in fact.

Unfortunately the performers did not introduce themselves, nor does the programme distinguish which actor is responsible for which performance, therefore I cannot give individual praise, however I’ll try my best. The man who performed Julius Caesar had a natural ease and told the story faultlessly, occasionally adding little humorous ad libs. The woman who performed The Merry Wives of Windsor was much less smooth, fumbling over character names and her words, which did somewhat detract from the shows charm. In the final performance of Troilus and Cressida, the confidence of the performance was regained, and the tale was told as if it were his own autobiography (even though the actual play leaves several loose ends that infuriated me – but I can hardly blame Forced Entertainment for Shakespeare’s writing choices).

Throughout the performances there were moments where I laughed and and moments where I cried (well I didn’t quite shed a tear, but I didn’t take the death of a tube of body wash lightly), and overall it was a highly enjoyable afternoon, regardless of my knowledge – or lack thereof – of the plays.
Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare was playing at the Barbican until 6 March. For more information, see www.barbican.org.uk


Photo: Hugo Glendinning