It's a somewhat hackneyed saying - favoured by
many a High School teacher of English Literature - that if Shakespeare were
alive today then he would likely be writing for soap operas; such was his predilection
for taking high drama with tragic or comedic themes of the zeitgeist and
packaging them in a way that was attainable for the mass market audience of his
day. With that in mind, Smooth Faced Gentlemen's latest production is a whistle
stop, lighthearted take on
There's no pretension, no preamble, no getting to grips with verse or pentameter - and while some may see this as heathen, doing away with what makes it 'classic', where is the harm if it succeeds in opening the story out to a wider audience?
The small, all-female cast clearly know their audience - indeed they seem to be a part of it themselves - and know how to keep their attention and make them feel like the theatre is a place for them (as opposed to their parents or grandparents) to be. From the outset, they are friendly, welcoming and chatty in the auditorium pre-show, not in character (other than costume - without the red berets or wraparound skirts that they later use to signify the male or female roles respectively), but simply making you feel welcomed as their mates. This air of inclusive playfulness is the style of the whole show - with knowing winks, elements of clowning and raised eyebrows when using "outdated" Shakespearian euphemisms - so everyone remains relaxed and doesn't have to work too hard to understand what is going on in front of them. You want a slightly dim soldier (to create classic Shakespearian confusion)? Here, he has a Scouse accent - the stalwart sign of being daft in TV characters of old. Don't quite get the silly words of the song they sing while getting Cassio drunk? See how they look confused too as they have to speak words that rhyme but mean little! Unsure how the Duke feels about Othello's love for his daughter Desdemona? Look at his open-mouthed exaggerated gnashing and wailing - he's clearly not a fan.
This does make it nigh on impossible to show the dark themes of the tragedy as it doesn't set up the stall well for theatrical truth. In fact, when Othello first slaps Desdemona as his jealousy increases, one audience member called out "Oh, that is way harsh man". But it's clearly assumed that everyone is already well-versed in the tale of how the embittered Iago manipulates Othello into a state of desperate jealousy that eventually drives him insane and leads to a climax of unnecessary multiple murders and suicide. The aim of this piece seems simply to show that Shakespeare can be easy to understand and can be fun rather than the stuffy, cobwebbed prose only enjoyed by middle-aged, cardigan-wearing, bearded intellectuals. There's no pretension, no preamble, no getting to grips with verse or pentameter - and while some may see this as heathen, doing away with what makes it 'classic', where is the harm if it succeeds in opening the story out to a wider audience?
The packed midweek house clearly loved it and the cast seemed to love playing for them - it had the feeling of a stand-up troupe showing how they were revelling in the knowledge that their jokes and play were making people laugh. At the curtain, the cast add to the applause by applauding us as though we have been a part of making the night special.
There are many ways to reinterpret Shakespeare, and Smooth Faced Gentlemen seem to be working in a similar arena to the Reduced Shakespeare Company - getting people to know the stories, if not the style. Pedants may say there is little to Shakespeare without the style, but I think this is definitely a valid approach and may even lead some to go on to read the original or see more 'traditional' versions now that they have the plot line sorted in their heads.
That said, it makes it all the more important to ensure the approach and style of the piece are clear from the outset - so that people who see the marketing and posters have an idea of what they are going to see. I don't see the validity or purpose of this being an all-female cast - whilst it doesn't detract from the simplification, it doesn't add anything to it: especially not enough to be the lead line on all the advertising. In fact, I would suggest that knowing it is all-female - and the way that the publicity uses photography to illustrate this as a key selling point - builds a false expectation of the production; implying rather more deep objectives around gender and sexuality are to be explored. If they are there, then they completely passed me by - the piece isn't working on a level deep enough to raise these sorts of questions. Drop the 'all-female' and drop the haunting (and strikingly beautiful) photograph - they both suggest a far different interpretation to that which you have here.
Whether or not you enjoy any Shakespeare production is often down to whether it meets your expectations of the style you are about to see. If you're used to The Globe or RSC and see those as the 'right way' to interpret the Bard (as one of the few disgruntled members of the audience who left in the interval clearly was), this may not be for you. But if you want a simple introduction to Shakespeare for your surly teenager who thinks it's just "borrrrrrrrrring" and a waste of Facebook time, take them along and in less than the 80 minutes running time, this production will prove them wrong. It's rare to sum up a Shakespeare tragedy as fun, energetic and at times silly (in the best possible way) but this is it and all the more worth seeing for being so.