September 10, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

The Complete Deaths (Spymonkey) @ Hull Truck

It’s almost thirty years since the Reduced Shakespeare Company launched its mission of comprehensive compression, culminating in a repeated, increasingly speedy depiction of all of the deaths in Hamlet. Spymonkey, in their first Shakespeare-themed show, have now taken up their mantle with a full show devoted entirely to staging all of the onstage deaths in Shakespeare, under the direction of guest monkey Tim Crouch.

I’m not sure if the company were aware that the vast majority of their audience in Hull last night were delegates of the British Shakespeare Association biennial conference, or how that affected the performance; a throwaway reference to The London Prodigal’s non-appearance in the show probably drew a bigger laugh than usual given the number of people who’ve written on that play in recent years who happened to be in the audience. An onstage counter, manned by a little lady with a scythe who spent the whole play knitting, began at 76 and counted down the deaths, allowing the academics in the room to enjoy counting down which deaths remained (I got fifteen of the last sixteen; I’d forgotten Titinius). The parameters were set by the show’s ringmaster, Toby Park – no offstage deaths (so no Lady Macbeth or Ophelia), no apocrypha, no fake deaths.

The first death was the company’s own – the death of Spymonkey’s own trivial clowning and of the audience’s bourgeois complacency. The show drew attention to its own morbid interest in death and to the facile nature of the theatrical experience by creating a throughline of individual tensions. Thus, Park was the frustrated clown trying to find a deeper and more profound resonance in the exploration of staged death; Stephan Kreiss the committed clown devoted to the serious business of silliness; Aitor Basauri the clown in denial, wondering if he can ever perform seriously; and Petra Massey desperate, despite the rules of the show, to play Ophelia.

Shakespeare was, in fact, incidental; this was arguably The Complete Spymonkey rather than The Complete Deaths. Having declared the death of the old Spymonkey, the production then lovingly appropriated or parodied slapstick, commedia, shadow work, dance theatre, in-camera puppetry, sketch work, acrobatic clowning, and any number of other European clowning crafts for which I don’t know the technical names. In the manner of The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!, the show demonstrated through variety the virtuosic skill of the performers in a wide range of traditions. The broader set of debates that the show staged were about the use to which these skills were put, and whether laughter was an end in itself.

The individual skits were very funny. The rivalry between Basauri and Kreiss began with the two hitting each other with musical sticks that ended up playing Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ on their bodies, and culminated with the two stood in their underwear pouring red paint over each other and up one another’s arses in a kabuki-inspired duel setpiece set to trilling recorder. Titus Andronicus became a gleeful meat factory, the clowns tumbling over one another to feed themselves into an enormous meat grinder. The death of Richard III saw the company stripping Basauri down to fetish underwear while screaming ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’ to the rhythms of Coal Chamber’s ‘Sway’ while Olivier’s Richard died on a screen in the background. And the shadow puppetry which began ominously with an enormous Othello looming over a tiny Desdemona got sidetracked into a performance of dogs and butterflies (‘it’s his soul!’).

And yet there were also moments of real pathos. Some used silliness, such as Basauri nervously trying to descend a ladder for the death of Arthur, or Massey finally getting to do her Ophelia, screaming almost silently from inside a human-sized inflatable hamster ball. Others achieved a kind of grandeur through their scale, especially that of Cinna the Poet, performed in extreme close-up through a camera as little paper men set on another one, until the little paper puppet was set on fire and left to burn. The most spectacular setpiece saw Cleopatra in an enormous and glorious costume with rippling wings, surrounded by the other three clowns dressed as snakes. The faux-oriental dance sequence that followed was ridiculous, but the beauty of costumes and the length of time taken for the sequence were, in their own way, mesmerising.

A final set of deaths were loosely connected by the through-line narrative of the clowns’ own disputes, and these simple re-settings were perhaps the most effective. The death of Coriolanus was an early intervention against Toby by his colleagues for getting too big for his boots; later, they rebelled against him and kicked him out of the troupe (Julius Caesar), following which he left the stage, trudging, and announced his broken heart (Enobarbus). The other references to the clowns’ own stories were less interesting, especially the love triangle between Massey, Kreiss and Park that saw Massey repeatedly asserting the need to maintain sexual tension, and that culminated in a lot of penis-waving during the Macbeth deaths. The company were funniest when responding to the crowd – Park almost corpsed as the audience instinctively started offering panto responses to his condescending comments (‘Oh no it isn’t!’), to which he retorted that Hull clearly had a long way to go before becoming UK City of Culture.

In the more successful marrying of the clowns’ loose plot with the Shakespearean deaths, the production ultimately made a serious observation about the profundity of the moment of death. By using Shakespearean deaths to mark moments of human experience – the dissolution of a company, the expulsion of the director – these deaths became liminal moments within lived experience. The quickness of the absolute buzz when Death hit her red button belied the duration of the dying period; and if the moment of death is a significant moment in the arc of any character, defining that individual’s memory and legacy, it is even more so when the character only has their death to establish themselves. Again, the production parodied this, this time in the performance of Antony’s death, the longest in Shakespeare. Park insisted that we use the moment to reflect on the situation in the Middle East and present solutions while nothing happened onstage, and berated an audience who dared to laugh. His anger was punctuated by Kreiss performing Iras’s ‘mystery death’ following her kiss with Cleopatra. A moment explicitly devoted to an insoluble problem was illustrated with an impossible death; hearts break without explanation.

The final image – trailed throughout the production by the recurring presence of puppet flies held up against bodies, which were most memorably used for the murder of Clarence as two drowned another in a glass of water – was of a fly on the screen, lying on its back, twitching its way towards death. The penultimate four deaths (Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude) had laid the four actors out on the floor, and as the black, ill-favoured fly finally stopped twitching, so did the production finally allow a genuine moment of silence. I don’t want to claim anything more for this production than it aimed for – this was, at its heart, a clown show – but I felt sorry for that poor fly. And if I can care about a death after seeing 75 others in two hours, maybe I’m not as desensitised as commentators accuse my generation of being.

Posted in Theatre review