We live in the age of the cultural mash-up, of old names reimagined into new forms. Here Snow White can become a sword-wielding warrior, Dr Jekyll can be an Incredible Hulk-like superhero and Angel Islington the home of a real-life fallen angel. And now ‘The Shakespeare Conspiracy’ invites us into a world where Shakespeare’s characters live, breathe and fight in the dark corners of our everyday world. More things in heaven and earth, indeed…
In some ways, the idea itself isn’t particularly new. Attempts to connect today’s jaded youth with Shakespeare’s texts have seen characters re-invented as samurai warriors, high-school cheerleaders even Michelin-starred chefs. The graphic novel ‘Kill Shakespeare’ has even gone so far as to construct a single world where all of Shakespeare’s characters abide, heroes contesting villains.
What sets “The Shakespeare Conspiracy” apart is its level of polish. This isn’t just your standard there’s-a-lot-goes-on-we-don’t-know-about tale. Shepherd’s delved deep into his subject matter and created a story which, for all its populist slant, is very multilayered. Character affectations become physical tics, throwaway snatches of original dialogue are rattled out to be caught or not and famous characters are daringly mocked. There’s even a sly wink towards the ongoing attempt to reform Richard III’s good name. This does mean a certain level of familiarity with the Complete Works is necessary to fully enjoy the play but, call me a snob, I don’t think that’s any bad thing.
This quality of writing is matched with energetic commitment by every member of the cast. Shepherd himself plays a superbly deranged, Moriarty-esque Iago matching wits with Richard Armah’s ass-kicking Garfield Oberon. Lee White makes a suitably swashbuckling anti-hero as Edmund, drawn to the darkside by Leonora’s slinking femme-fatale of a Lady Macbeth, and Alex Pankhurst brings an impressive complexity to his twisted Richard III. Even Andrew London’s Martin, the audience’s proxy and therefore the least vividly drawn character, gets a chance to shine during a superbly-characterized quickfire romp through Shakespeare’s greatest soundbites.
My personal favourites though, were Jack Baldwin and Libby Evans; a gung-ho Benedick and Beatrice whose individual performances and on-stage chemistry were superb.
Of course, it’s not all perfect – there are moments where the dense plotting and byzantine structure means the play gets a little tangled up in itself and requires some slightly awkward exposition to get back on track. There’re also some rather crudely (and unnecessarily) crowbarred-in references to modern works like The Princess Bride and The Avengers, possibly included to balance out the classical knowledge required elsewhere. And I found myself jarred by the impassioned climactic speech about the evils of genre-bending; slightly hypocritical in a mash-up play such as this.
However, these are slight criticisms to place alongside a show which offers a well-crafted, enjoyable (and surprisingly educational) romp through the world of Shakespearean literature. Vaulting ambition, certainly, but happily not o'erleaping itself…