Early on in The Shakespeare Reviews it is asked: who was William Shakespeare? Widely regarded as the greatest writer of the English language and the only author to have his own number in the Dewey Decimal System (822.33 if you must know), surprisingly little is known about his life. Unfortunately, it is not to be elucidated in this play but we are provided with an amusing two hours through a compilation of comic songs and sketches inspired by the Bard, reminding us of just how strong Shakespeare’s hold on our culture remains.
We are reminded of how much we quote Shakespeare in our everyday language, indeed he is credited with having coined anything from 600 to 10,000 words, so we can safely say that he made a significant contribution to the English language. (More arbitrary trivia coming up: while most college graduates have a 4000 word vocabulary, Shakespeare’s spanned over 29,000 words – ok so some of those he made up but he still puts us to shame!).
We are also reminded of the number of terrible performances we have all had to sit through, how many times Shakespeare’s words have been butchered, whether, as the Revue shows us, in the GCSE answers of Hampstead students, by amateur directors (Hamlet should be “fun, fun, fun!” the director in Victoria Wood’s sketch insists) or by academics (in a hilarious skit by Stephen Fry a student has the daunting task of reading a single word in Richard III while expressing an array of emotions and “suffusing the whole thing with a red color!”). We are all aware of the amount of analysis Shakespeare has been subjected to (thus the Dewey decimal number), it verges on the absurd, I once had to sit through a university course on ‘Animals in Shakespeare,’ (to put it briefly, there are only two actual animals in all his plays but countless animalistic metaphors – and yes that class was a waste of my time, and the professor more interested in communicating with his dead dog than with his students). Even in experienced directors hands, the material can be dangerous – case in point being Branagh’s over-the-top finale in his film Hamlet, which he obviously saw as the opportunity to play not only Hamlet but also swing on ropes like Tarzan, sword fight as well as Zorro and die in a position extremely reminiscent of Jesus on the cross. Indeed, returning to the play at hand, as the first half comes to an end in a puff of smoke and a witty song, it is pointed out that that noise we hear is probably “Shakespeare spinning in his grave.” Earlier, Shakespeare’s most celebrated characters themselves came out to plead for us to “give them a rest”!
All in all this compilation of material from over forty writers including top names such as Alan Bennett, Noel Coward, Fry and Laurie, Victoria Wood, Tom Lehrer and Stephen Sondheim, is a good night out as long as you don’t expect anything more than light, and somewhat camp, entertainment. The audience were in hysterics, although I thought the first half a little long and could have done with a few cuts. The cast of five coped well with the abundance of material, and Sarah Barren replacing lead Francesca Casey performed admirably while Matthew Stevens stood out in terms of comedic timing. Nicolas Sagar was at the piano throughout, effortlessly providing the music for the songs, allowing for good transitions between scenes and creating an inviting atmosphere. The advantages of the small venue were further seized upon when the audience was asked to join in in song to a rather peculiar English lesson taught by the French to hilarious effects. The play ends on a high with an impressive tap dancing sequence while the classic Cole Porter song “Let’s do it” is altered to remind us that Shakespeare was the first to tell us that “Danes do it, Gertrude did it twice and we can do it standing up at the Globe”!