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Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare review at the Barbican, London – ‘wry, loving and irreverent’

Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare at the Pit, Barbican Centre, London. Photo: Hugh Glendinning Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare at the Pit, Barbican Centre, London. Photo: Hugh Glendinning
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“Hung be the heavens with black! Yield day to night!” So opens Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1. Not in this version by experimental theatre legends Forced Entertainment, part of their presentation of the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Hesitantly, in a quiet, deadpan voice, performer Richard Lowdon commences this condensed adaptation with: “Okay. Erm. So this is Henry VI Part 1.”

But that’s not the only radical revision. Instead of actors, the characters are played by everyday items: Joan of Arc is a bottle of baby oil and Jack Cade is the inner tube of a loo roll. All the action is played out on a wooden tabletop as Lowdon moves the objects around and summarises the play’s plot.

While some of the chosen items are subtly connected to the characters they represent – the House of York are all white objects, such as limescale remover, while the House of Lancaster are all red things, such as ketchup – others have no discernible link, and provoke some creative acts of imagination.

The way these household items become characters, the images and imagination the narrations instil, is the project’s great strength. The Complete Works excel in their simplicity, and their apparent reductionism. The Bard stripped of his poetry is bound to raise purist hackles – good thing, too. This isn’t about apotheosising the man and his language, it’s about storytelling reduced to its essence.

Forced Entertainment are working through all of Shakespeare’s plays over the course of a week, with various different performers taking to the table in turns, and each play lasting only 45 minutes. Wry, loving and irreverent, it’s a reminder that one person – armed with a story and some bric-a-brac – can create colossal worlds.

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Wry summaries of all of Shakespeare’s plays from experimental theatre legends Forced Entertainment