Natalie Burgess and Richard Smithies work through the principal monologues of four of Shakespeare’s major tragedies: Othello, Hamlet, Richard III and King Lear. The pair present the key evil-doers in the scenes of their scheming but unfortunately fail to bring much flair to the Bard’s plays.
The villains certainly are choice and the speeches well selected. The problem is in the lack of connection between them. Each extract is followed by a black out and an awkward on-stage costume change before the next begins without introduction. There is a lack of unification in the piece as a whole which detracts from the potential the construct has to make a comment on the communal themes of Shakespearian tragedy. Ultimately, the audience is left with an impression that there is not much purpose to the set up at all, other than existing as an exercise in recital.
This is not helped by the lack of real character differentiation between the four deceptive rouges – Iago, Claudius, Richard and Edmund. Smithies has a substantial stage presence, which is fortunate as he plays all four leads, while Burgess adopts the odd supporting role. Unfortunately there is insufficient variation in Smithies’ representations for any of them to be distinctive. The same stance, the same voice and the same delivery communicate each as evil, but none as noticeably disparate. This is disappointing considering the latent possibilities each persona possesses and is not aided by the poor use of costume. Each character has different clothes, and Iago does have a great wig, but it’s unclear, for example, why this is removed so that young Edmund is bald.
The pair have also avoided properly harnessing the opportunities that a two-hander can bring to the table. Burgess initially played a couple of minor roles and was then relegated to the task of helping Smithies get dressed between scenes. This was a shame because as the piece progressed it began to feel like she had no real purpose.
Nonetheless, the performance gave a clear articulation of villainous character. The Othello sketch included an added narrative from Iago on the transpiring events - an elegant touch that justified the sections of the play that were chosen. However as the first play, this meant that the show began much more strongly than it finishes.