The thrill of Shakespeare, simply told

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Imagine it’s late at night. Maybe you’ve had a couple of pints at a pub and the topic of Shakespeare comes up. Perhaps you’ve been drinking with some actors? You complain that you’ve never really gotten Shakespeare: all that dense language, all those characters, all those plot twists, it’s all a bit too highfalutin for you. Could someone just tell you the story: The who, the what, the where?  

One of the actors is game.  

“Which one? Which play?”

Well, you’d like to hear them all, but let’s start with a favorite, Lear. “Go ahead, tell me Lear.”

Now imagine this actor launches in “It begins…” and as she goes along she names the place. Then she names the characters and to give you a sense of who’s who and who’s in each scene, she grabs what’s around: an empty tall vase for Lear; a pair of vinegar bottles for Goneril and Regan. For Cordelia? A bottle of rose water will do. These will serve as actors while she tells the tale.

Then this gifted storyteller tells you the story of Lear scene by scene, but not line by line. This happens, then this happens. Suddenly on your empty bar table these empty bottles become the characters. A play begins to emerge. The space between objects takes on meaning. The hierarchy of the court is captured in the architecture of the objects. A twist of the bottle becomes a searing glance between characters. A character in disguise is as simple as turning the object upside down. For death, the bottle is simply laid on its side.

It’s all so intimate. Just one actor telling you a great tale at a table for a couple of chums. Before you know it an hour has passed and this muse says “and the last thing that happens is…”  You’ve heard Lear.

“Tell me another.”

Capturing the feeling of Forced Entertainment’s “Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare” is tricky. Across six days last week, this 30-year-old company from Sheffield, England told the story of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. In one sense, it’s as simple as all that. An actor sits at a table, grabs the kind of things that clutter a pantry shelf of a junk drawer, and launches into an hour long telling of the tale.

Forced Entertainment has taken the most basic tenets of good acting (it’s about what happens,  it’s about the story, it’s about the audience) and made them the foundation of the whole project. “Tell me what Shakespeare is saying in your own words” – that’s at the heart of each of the 36 plays.

But what about Shakespeare? What about his words? Isn’t Shakepeare’s language what makes him great? (Or as I heard one lady in the audience whisper conspiratorially to her friend “you know, almost all of Shakespeare’s plots were stolen. It’s his language that’s special”)

Yes, it’s Shakespeare’s language that’s special but how often do we get to hear it? How often is a production obscured, rather than revealed, by an actor’s indulgence of Shakespeare’s words.

Too often, when a production of Shakespeare goes off the rails, it’s because the actors are focusing on the words and not their use. Forced Entertainment embraces an almost utilitarian approach to these plays. There is a simple, functional elegance to the Shaker chair. You aren’t afraid to use it. It’s function and its form neatly aligned and essential. It’s approachable.  

So it is with Forced Entertainment take on Shakespeare. The actors aren’t wearing fancy costumes. They are in street clothes (and not even spiffy ones). You have the sense that you’ve interrupted them from their daily routine and they just happen to be telling you a story.  

The objects they use to tell the story are, for the most part, everyday objects: a wine glass, a bottle of glue, a can of spray paint. They aren’t exotic. They are functional. They work against the precious, distant notion of Shakespeare. They offer a way into the play that’s linked not to some distant idea of high art and language but the daily existence of your junk drawer.

By stripping away the exotic frills of Shakespeare, a simple magic and power emerges.

The magic comes from the theater and the power of naming an object onstage. It’s the same magic that young children understand instinctively. Watch a group of kids playing and it won’t be long before they name something (“this is home base,” “this is a castle,” “this is a magic wand”). With simple words the object is endowed, it takes on meaning. And, as long as the rules of the game aren’t broken, it can become the thing.

So it is on the stage. Name a vase Lear and it becomes Lear. Invited to join in the game, an audience will endow that object with a life, a story, even emotions.

Of course, there is a deep curation to these seeming ordinary objects. They each serve a subtle narrative function. The vinegar bottles for Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan evoke both a sibling connection and a bitter sense of character. The pottery that captures the lovers in Midsummer helps remind us “who belongs with whom”: one set of lovers are white, angular vases; the other more earthen and round. In MacBeth, Banquo takes on the form of tall, green bottle of glue. His son Fleance is the same brand, same bottle only smaller.

Not only do these objects draw us into the imagined world of the play, they help us create meaning. I was struck during “MacBeth,” a play I’ve seen more than a dozen times, by the painful relationship between fathers and their sons. Seeing the little bottle of glue next to the big one (and seeing this echoed across all the fathers and sons in the play) brought home a pain I’d heard before but never really recognized. Similarly, the painful simplicity of the death scenes, whether from battle or a final duel that left the objects laying on their sides, captured the scope of the tragedy in ways that drooling actors onstage never have.

Here is where the sense of accumulation and scope of “Complete Works” takes hold.

Forced Entertainment tackled 36 plays in a week. Some in the audience went for the whole journey; I managed a little better than half. What begins to emerge is the commonalities, the through lines, the connections across plays. While you may miss Shakespeare’s words at moments, longing for a favorite soliloquy, what you gain is an appreciation of the whole. Those fathers and sons keep reappearing. The tremors of Othello echo the shaking of Henry IV. Seeing 10 plays in a day, you begin to read across plays. It becomes a deeply personal experience with the actors and the canon.

Six actors from the company split up the 36 plays, so you learn their styles. Audience members articulated their favorites (“oh, she’s wonderful”, “I like how emotional he gets,”). You begin to appreciate the way one actor subtly turns the objects when they speak. You marvel at how another seems to find wonder in the objects themselves as if they are telling her the story and not the other way around.

You also, through connection, repetition, and accumulation begin to develop a very personal sense of Shakespeare based, not on a single play or actor, but through a web of resonances: what struck you, what moved you, what you remember across the plays.

Isn’t that what Shakespeare should be about? Not just pretty words and elaborate costumes, but something more intimate and more profound? That’s what Forced Entertainment captures with “Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare.”