The California Shakespeare Ensemble’s exploration of Shakespeare’s greatest villains reminds us why the Bard can’t be beat. The show compresses the plots of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice into just over an hour. It’s a simple premise and it works well. The company is dedicated to performing stripped-down Shakespeare, bringing the verse to audiences in a very accessible way in order to celebrate some of the best poetry ever written.
The show feels quite raw, in need of some editing and polish. At times it feels like bearing witness to an intense, albeit expertly handled, dress rehearsal.
The manifesto runs thus: ‘Minimal staging, minimal props, simply: beautiful stories told with beautiful words by brilliant performers.’ This minimalism is arguably both the strength and weakness of the production. The simplicity forces the audience to engage with the text, which is a commendable aim – so often the poetry can get buried amid complex stagecraft. The bare stage peopled by uniformly black-clad actors really brings out the dextrous beauty of Shakespeare’s language. The actors evidently have a close affinity with the plays and this comes through in their nuanced deliveries. Shylock/Benvolio deserves a special mention for his masterful, assured performances.
However, I feel that a little more theatricality could amplify the impact of the production. Some very effective puppetry is used at the beginning of the show to portray the witches of Macbeth. A few more quirky touches such as this would make the show into a more interesting performance . As it is, the show feels quite raw, in need of some editing and polish. At times it feels like bearing witness to an intense, albeit expertly handled, dress rehearsal. One other quibble, although very minor, is that the pronunciation of “Glamis” is consistently incorrect. Perhaps one to check, as we are in the homeland of Macbeth.
Thematically speaking, the episodic construction of the show as it alternates between scenes from the three plays makes us question the character of the villains themselves and the very nature of villainy. Is Shylock truly a villain, or a victim? Is Romeo not equally stained with guilt after Tybalt’s murder? How far is Macbeth a victim of circumstance and marital pressure? How much is all of this down to perspective?
Shakespeare’s Villains is a show worth seeing for its interesting take on some of the most well-loved heroes and antiheroes in literature. This is for anyone wishes to discover or be reminded of the raw power of Shakespeare’s words.