He may be one of the most well-known and celebrated playwrights in history, but William Shakespeare is not an easy man to understand. Language has moved on to such a large degree in the last 500 years that nowadays that the beautifully scripted verses in Shakespeare’s creation are at risk of falling on deaf ears. Young people trying to study his texts at high school will have enough trouble getting to grips with the complicated plotlines, let alone start to understand the intricate sub-text that he has woven. This is where Forced Entertainment steps in.
The aim of Table Top Shakespeare is to strip each of the plays back to its simplest forms and convey the key plotlines in 45-60 minute snippets. However, with the number of characters in the great bard’s works it can still be difficult to follow, so why not bring these characters to life using familiar items to focus the mind? Table Top Shakespeare’s narrators bring the plays to life using everyday objects that interact with each other upon (unsurprisingly) a table top. So, for example, the character of King John in the self-titled play is represented with a potato masher, King Philippe with a bottle of Lenor and the respective queens with cutlery and pegs. The idea is useful in telling the story with visualisation and the whimsical nature of the characterisation results in jovial laughter from the audience. One can’t help but feel, however, that there is a certain level of oversimplification here. Does this allow the audience to more easily take in the bones of the play, or is it belittling and a touch condescending? It’s a fine line to walk here.
The narrator’s personality of course is key to the telling of the story. Each individual injects their own style that complements the plays well: King John and Coriolanus have more intensity and dry humour, whereas As You Like It is more farcical in narration in order to bring out the intended comedy in the writing. Personally I prefer the more intense narration – the alternative feels a bit like being in the audience of a children’s TV show. Sickly sweet and childish delivery is annoying after five minutes.
The premise to make the synopsis of Shakespeare more accessible is a laudable idea. The issue here is ultimately in the delivery – no matter how engaging the narrators are, there is a key conceptual issue if the audience start falling asleep halfway into each performance. Maybe this is simply too much like a dramatised lecture to keep everyone entertained.
Table Top Shakespeare is playing at The Pit Theatre, Barbican until 6 March. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican website.