Monday, July 29, 2013

Three-man Bard bonanza

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) cast members, from left, Tim Overton, Damian Callinan, Nic English.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) cast members, from left, Tim Overton, Damian Callinan, Nic English. Photo: Shane Reid

If you want a crash course in one of the monuments of world culture in one night, now's your chance. The State Theatre Company of South Australia is touring The Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield. Prolific director Adam Cook first directed Shakespeare a couple of years ago for Adelaide's Come Out Festival for young people.

''The first time we did it for a younger audience they laughed at everything and we thought, 'We'll never get out of here','' Cook says.

The production begins with an abbreviated Romeo and Juliet before careening through all but one of the plays in the first half (some, inevitably, given more attention than others). Act Two is devoted entirely to Hamlet.

It starts out, ostensibly, as a high-toned attempt to introduce the audience to Shakespeare but that soon changes as logistical and time constraints and clashing egos become all too apparent. And all the works are enacted by three men.


Melbourne stand-up comedian Damian Callinan, who was in the production two years ago, is the dry one who just wants to get through the performance. Nic English is the passionate Shakespearean. And the third?

Tim Overton says, ''My guy is the one who likes to put on a wig and a dress and pretend to be a woman.''

And there are a number of opportunities for that. Overton plays Juliet - ''making the character more of a petulant teenager type: plenty of finger-snapping and a big surly attitude''.

It's not all gender-bending: he also plays Benvolio and Tybalt in the same play. Likewise, in Hamlet, he is Ophelia (''of course'') and Gertrude (''of course'') but also Bernardo and Claudius.

In scenes where his characters are interacting, he has to do a lot of running on and off stage and making quick costume changes. And as the show goes on and the pace becomes more frenzied, that happens more and more frequently. One of his favourite sequences is when Macbeth turns into Julius Caesar, which turns into Anthony and Cleopatra.

And to achieve this kind of thing requires a lot of work all round.

''We've got a fantastic designer, Ailsa Paterson,'' he says. ''She designed the set and the costumes and the hats.''

And she was up for anything. During rehearsals, the actors decided they wanted puppets to represent the Players in Hamlet and she quickly whipped up some Muppet-like oven mitts with eyes and wigs.

One of the major female roles Overton does not get to play, even fleetingly, is Lady Macbeth.

''That's something I'd really like to do,'' Overton says.

''Maybe I'll give it a go some time.'' That sounds like his stage persona in the play talking. More realistically, perhaps, he might one day get to play Richard III, the Shakespearean character he likes best.

''You're rooting for him and then you think, 'You're just a little bit evil.'''

In real life, Overton, 25, began acting in high school - one of his roles was Hamlet - then went on to study drama at the Adelaide College of the Arts. He and English were classmates and decided when they graduated to start their own theatre company, Jungle Bean, to create work for themselves. It has mounted four plays from Australia and overseas.

But Overton has had a broad range of experience. He's toured with several Patch Theatre Company productions for children, at least one of which, The Fastest Boy in the World, came to the ACT. It was useful in terms of relating directly to an audience and playing comedy, he says - good experience for Shakespeare, which is pitched at slightly older audiences. And acting in the compilation show Shakespeare On Love - focusing on romantic scenes in the plays - also helped prepare him for the current production, which is touring for two and a half months.

Cook says, ''The show has very broad appeal. Audiences love Shakespeare - bad teachers can turn you off.''

But a good production still works its magic, he says, and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) can serve both as an entertaining introduction to the plays as well as a fun night for those who are familiar with them.

Cook says the writers encourage productions to do changes to make things local. So, for example, a section retelling The War of the Roses as gridiron has been changed: ''We've rewritten it to AFL.''

Othello is a gangsta rap - ''We've rewritten the text to be more current in terms of the rap artists popular now''. Titus Andronicus becomes a Jamie Oliver-style cooking show. Macbeth is delivered in kilts and heavy Scottish accents and swords so big the actors can't lift them, and the comedies are rolled into one story combining elements from all of them.

The RSC began in the early 1980s at Renaissance fairs in California with short, pass-the-hat versions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, which evolved over time into the current show.

It premiered in 1987 and was a big international success, and led to other shows in the same vein: the company performed it in repertory with The Bible: the Complete Word of God (abridged) and The Complete History of America (abridged) at the Criterion Theatre in London for almost 10 years.

Other RSC shows have included Western Civilisation: The Complete Musical (abridged), The Complete World of Sports (abridged) and Completely Hollywood (abridged).

In today's time-poor, low-attention-span world, the RSC seems to be on to a good thing. Whether it's history, culture, literature, or sport, who doesn't love the idea of having all the best bits in one hit?

But it all started with the Bard, as the Adelaide company is reminding us.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) is at Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, August 24-27. Tickets $44/$49. Bookings: 6285 6290.
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