Death by Shakespeare

“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale”. This quotation from Richard III encapsulates the nature of this aesthetically powerful performance; a chorus of spirits, bruised and bloodied, gather to re-enact their deaths and, while some stand out as characters, they work as an ensemble to do so, with every member of the group a part of every tale — a murderer, a victim, or standing by, observing and mocking the action.

A particularly frightening highlight is the death of Lady Macbeth; she joins the entire cast in desperately trying to clean the blood from her hands, bathed in red light.

The lines of individual characters are often delivered as a group, while lines from different plays are spoken beside each other, weaving together Shakespeare’s words from tragedy and history alike on fear, grief, damnation and death. These speeches, taken from their original context and spliced together with others, are given a new meaning and resonance in this brave new world of spirits, and Shakespeare’s words are truly the focus, made all the more beautiful and haunting in the way in which they are delivered.

The events of the piece appear to be orchestrated by one spirit, who explains that one of those who enacts their death can be spared and returned to life, inviting the audience to be the judge. Although this is an interesting premise, the presentation of these different characters’ deaths is sometimes difficult to distinguish, as no announcements are made – merely a whispering of their name and change of lighting to set the scene as they emerge from their ensemble role to tell their story.

The way in which these characters’ deaths are portrayed is innovative and seamless; a blend of dance and physical theatre, backed by Shakespeare’s words as well as the use of music from dulcimer, harp and drum. Some of these scenes look almost ritualistic, frenzied and wild, such as the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio, while others are comparatively calm, such as the death of Ophelia, where the ensemble contort themselves to become the water in which she drowns.

A particularly frightening highlight is the death of Lady Macbeth; initially hemmed in on all sides by the chorus and desperate to escape, she then joins the entire cast in desperately trying to clean the blood from her hands, bathed in red light. In many cases the spirits address the audience directly with their lines, even going so far as to extend their hands in greeting, drawing us into their world. “What,” they ask. “Art thou afraid?”

Although an abrupt change of mood comes with the appearance of the players and the comic deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe, the majority of the deaths come from Shakespeare’s tragedies, and most of them from the same few plays. This was slightly disappointing; I would love to see this company interpret Clarence’s drowning in Malmsey wine in Richard III, or the brutal murder of Julius Caesar. It is strange to ask for more death scenes, I think, but then I did “delight to view these heinous deeds”. 

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Performances

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The Blurb

A chorus of bawdy spirits lead you through this physically dynamic amalgamation of Shakespeare’s finest death scenes, which fuse together familiar characters and scenes to create a fresh look at the Bard’s beautiful words. Death by Shakespeare enjoyed a very successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2013, and is being resurrected this year! ‘An absolute must-see for Shakespeare fans’ (ThreeWeeks). 'A remarkable achievement’ (EdFringeReview.com).

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