It’s a wonder no one’s done it before. There are 74 onstage deaths in the works of Shakespeare – 75 if you count, as this show does, the black ill-favoured fly in Titus Andronicus – and comedy troupe Spymonkey plan to perform them all over the course of one evening. It’s an absurd undertaking but also a fascinating academic exercise and one they attack with delicious commitment.
There’s a counter at the front of the stage to help keep track and a LED screen above to tell you who’s about to snuff it. The stage is covered in plastic sheeting. But despite the abattoir aesthetic The Complete Deaths is an extremely funny show, silly, giddy and often brilliantly ridiculous. The company dress as asps for Cleopatra’s demise, they don translucent plastic kilts for Macbeth. Richard III is an orgy of leather and gas masks. Titus, fly aside, sees them go full Theatre of Blood with an onstage mincing machine. The ambush of poor Cinna the poet in Julius Caesar, performed with tiny paper puppets, is genuinely menacing.
Watching it, one ends up playing a kind of grim Bard bingo, who’s left? Which characters make the cut, so to speak? (Ophelia doesn’t as her death is off-stage, much to the frustration of Petra Massey). The show makes you engage with Shakespeare in new ways, to think of the role death plays in his work: Antony’s suicide is the longest apparently. Tertiary characters are snuffed out with something approaching glee while Lady Macbeth meets her end alone, unwatched.
The death scenes are connected by Aitor Basauri,’s wish to be a proper Shakespearean actor “like Kenneth Branagh”, but this is just an excuse for more clowning about and jokes about codpieces. The pairing of Spymonkey with director Tim Crouch turns out to be inspired. The show contains moments of physical brilliance but also some equally entertaining repurposing of live art tropes: microphones and video play a large role. We are given a fly’s eye view into the nostrils and ears of the prone performers. Red paint is splatted and spattered with abandon.
Not everything works. The production feels a bit baggy in places. The best moments are when it manages to feel both like a Spymonkey show and a Tim Crouch production at the same time, a bloody marriage of slapstick and something more probing about the staging of death: the extinguishing of life and light. But it never entirely removes its tongue from its cheek; the production’s main aim is to make its audience laugh, which it does, often. We laugh with them at death.