The Complete Deaths by Spymonkey is an exercise in theatricality and endurance. To perform all of Shakespeare’s 75 on-stage deaths is no mean feat, and not to be taken on lightly. That’s what company member Toby would like us to believe when he explains, in the introduction to the show, this is “the company formerly known as Spymonkey” and that they have moved away from the comedy and clowning the Brighton based company has developed an almost cult following for.
Over the two hours of deathly fun, the comedic and the serious are constantly at odds. A device clearly thought through by creator and director Tim Crouch, it provides a commentary on how we view Shakespeare and how Shakespeare ‘should’ be performed. An LED title screen looms over the stage, displaying the title of the play and death being performed. To stage right sits a woman in her 60s – this is Lady Death who whiles away the time crocheting and controlling the numerical countdown with a scythe above her desk.
The set is sparse, contemporary and sterile. With plastic sheeting suspended from the ceiling, it has more of a vibe of a serial killer’s garage than the set for any farcical stage play: but farcical it sometimes is, and deadly serious it also is. Although at times the tempo feels a little off, and could use more tweaking, the balance between the comedic and the serious is spot on. This counterpoint is brought to a head in the cleverly construed death of Julius Caesar seeing Toby sent packing by the rest of the company for wanting to make everything too serious.
Live feed projection films and animations are used to great effect, particularly with the recognisible portrait of the bard frequently appearing omni-present on the screen at the back of the stage. Performer Aitor, clad in codpiece, doublet and hose, dreams of the RSC and becoming a ‘serious’ Shakespearean actor. In a series of moments alone onstage with the godly bard, Aitor is told how to perform Shakespeare properly (stand with legs wide; point at things; and spit when you talk) but ultimately derided for performing contemporary dance dressed as a snake.
The imagery created by The Complete Deaths is the stuff of nightmares; beautiful, surreal, absurd nightmares. The above-mentioned snake dancing is, of course, Cleopatra’s death. One of my favourites, that leaves the Egyptian queen with plastic snakes dangling from her breasts and crotch. Another winner is Richard III. I never thought the famous “my kingdom for a horse” speech could be remixed to techno music, whilst Richard rides on an industrial metal crate pulled by performers dressed as horses wearing gas masks and another angle grinding.
Spymonkey and Tim Crouch have done what so many people are afraid to do with Shakespeare. And that is to do exactly what they want. The joy they have in doing this is infectious and The Complete Deaths is a performance that, bizarrely, can be enjoyed by lovers and haters of Shakespeare alike. Borrowing from contemporary dance; clowning; silent movie; traditional Shakespeare; postmodern theatre; and Buto The Complete Deaths is unadulterated theatrical playfulness. Visceral, paradoxically full of life and all tied together by an elusive fly.
The Complete Deaths is playing at Brighton Festival until Sunday 15 May. More information and tickets can be found at the Brighton Festival website.
Photo: John Hunter