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Howard Sherman: Forget Marvel, I’m more excited by the Shakespeare crossover universe

Kill Shakespeare divides Shakespeare’s universe into two camps: the heroes and comic figures versus the villains
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Swilling champagne and wearing sunglasses, a dog, whose briefcase declares him to be with Mega Stage Productions, announces to his startled pig companion: “Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo, Juliet, Lear, Antony, Cleopatra, Caliban… all your favourites on stage at the same time, and I’m going to call it ‘Shakespeare: Infinity Wars’!”

Regular readers of The Stage may find this scenario familiar, because it was Harry Venning’s May 3 Hamlet cartoon. But Venning, whose cartoons are always a treat for theatre aficionados, may not know that his idea is already a reality – sort of…

While it is not yet a film or stage production, the premise Venning succinctly described has already been realised in the graphic novel series Kill Shakespeare, created and written by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col, and first published in 2010.

I’ve not often been a reader of graphic novels very often, due to my schoolteacher mother allowing me free range to all reading in my youth save for comic books. But I stumbled upon the series in 2012, when writing about Shakespearean graphic novels for American Theatre magazine. At the time, only the first series had been published; now there are three, with the first two collected in an elaborately bound omnibus Backstage Edition.

Kill Shakespeare – Backstage Edition

Kill Shakespeare divides Shakespeare’s universe into two camps: the heroes and comic figures on one side, the villains aligned on the other. The quest of the good guys is to stop the evil league from – clap of thunder, flash of lightning, orchestra crescendo – killing a wizard named Shakespeare.

Like the Marvel Universe that has steadily taken over cinemas, and just as in their newsprint origins, part of the fun in Kill Shakespeare is watching how characters from different storylines interact. Kill Shakespeare puts Hamlet in the company of Falstaff, Lady Macbeth allies with Richard III.

The Shakespearean references beyond the characters are endless. The fat knight introduces himself to the melancholy Dane as, “Falstaff, as you like it”. Familiar lines are dotted throughout, though not necessarily in their original context. The books are an ideal nexus for Shakespeare buffs and comic aficionados, since there’s a certain satisfaction in spotting every reference.

The hardcover edition is annotated extensively, almost as a study guide for the uninitiated, but that rather spoils the fun, at least for those of us who have watched certain Shakespeare plays dozens of times.

Dropping the heavy collected volume into the hands of a young person, with the goal of sparking an interest in Shakespeare, might be a useful gateway drug, so to speak. Yet part of the reader’s enjoyment comes from recognising at least some of the original works. Then Kill Shakespeare might lead less well-versed readers to find out about the origin stories of many of the others.

Kill Shakespeare engages in the same kind of world-building as the Harry Potter stories or Tolkien novels, even if it’s built on a framework of characters created by someone long-dead. In that sense, it resembles the TV series Once Upon a Time (a fairy tale mash-up), Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, or Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels.

But if Venning’s Hamlet cartoons were strips, rather than single panel drawings, Kill Shakespeare might well provide the Hollywoodish dog with his comeuppance. The graphic novels, according to the Internet Movie Database, are in development as a TV series, though no creative team is mentioned. Perhaps, if there were another frame, we’d learn that the porcine Hamlet already has the rights to the show.

The Shakespearean references beyond the characters are endless

This week in US theatre

Gay and lesbian friends experience a change in perspective when viewed through the eyes of a transgender addition to their circle in Jordan Harrison’s Log Cabin, receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway. With Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson in the cast under Pam MacKinnon’s direction, the show opens Monday.

The Royal Court-Abbey Theatre production of David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue makes its US debut at the Public Theater, once again starring Stephen Rea under Vicky Featherstone’s direction. It opens Monday.

While the original production ran on Broadway for more than a year, Oscar Hammerstein’s reworking of Bizet’s Carmen into Carmen Jones has never had a Broadway revival. But John Doyle’s staging of the little-seen work will conclude his season at Classic Stage Company with what the company bills as the first major New York revival since the original run, opening Wednesday. Anika Noni Rose, a Tony-winner for Caroline, Or Change, plays the title role.

On Thursday, two days after Cyprus Avenue opens, the Royal Court sees another of its productions make its US debut: Carey Mulligan in Dennis Kelly’s Girls and Boys, under Lyndsey Turner’s direction. The solo show was to have opened this week, but was delayed by what the press representatives for the show described as “a minor injury”. The production will be audio-recorded by Audible, which has announced a residency at Off-Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre as a home base for recording live performance events.

A revised version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever played a short Broadway run at the end of 2011, and now Off-Broadway’s Irish Rep offers yet a new version, adapted and directed by the company’s artistic director Charlotte Moore. Melissa Errico plays the leading role of Daisy Gamble, the ESP-endowed leading lady in production that opens on Thursday.

The season gets underway at Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theatre Festival in the coming week with two world premieres. Douglas Carter Beane’s The Closet, based on Francis Veber’s Le Placard, features Matthew Broderick leading the cast under the direction of Mark Brokaw. Mary-Louise Parker plays the lead in Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, under the direction of recent Tony-winner David Cromer.

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