If you watch a fair bit of Shakespeare, which I do, you may think that it’s mostly gloom and doom. Even in his romantic comedies he finds ingenious ways of killing off his characters. Sit through Hamlet and it’s bloodshed – by the gallon.
There have been 75 on-stage deaths – well 74 and a fly – in his canon. How do I know? Because they all feature in the oeuvre of comedy troupe, Spymonkey. There are more, of course, but aren’t included because they happen off stage.
This means, among others, no Ophelia, Lady Macbeth or Mercutio who all died quite spectacularly. We even miss out on the death of Antigonus from The Winter’s Tale who runs off stage “pursued by a bear” and, we assume, is made into ursine dinner.
The Complete Deaths sneaked into Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatre earlier this year to showcase the production ahead of its official opening at the Brighton Fringe. It returned, briefly, this week.
As a big fan of the company I was looking forward to their return but was disappointed by this latest work. Spymonkey seems to be running out of genuinely funny ideas. Their outrageous brand of comedy now seems tired and a bit passé.
There’s only so many times audiences will guffaw at the sight of the rather hirsute Spanish clown, Aitor Basauri, completely naked. This time around we had the extra delight of seeing him rogered with a long-handled paint brush. Oh god, how we laughed.
As a concept The Complete Deaths might work but it would have been done far better by, say, The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which manages to retain the integrity of the subject matter and still come up with a rib-tickler of a show.
Spymonkey frequently resorts to gross-out humour for laughs but a lot of their gags are getting repetitive.
For this one the company has gone high-tech – well, as much as they can afford to be (they make a big play of being chronically in debt).
There’s an electronic scoreboard counting down the deaths as they are played out, a surtitle screen gives the audience the name of the play and character being killed, and there is even a pen-cam to film close-ups.
There’s also a miniature fly (the black ill-favoured fly killed in Titus Andronicus) on a stick which buzzes between actors and a few props created from industrial-sized trolleys.
Of the cast of four Basauri and Petra Massey are responsible for most of the physical comedy and that includes occasional moments of nudity. Their leader, Toby Park, who has composed the production’s music, does their graphic design and probably also makes the tea, appears on stage spouting lines from Hamlet, the Henrys and trying to keep the mayhem in check.
The final performer is Stephan Kreiss who spends most of the show chasing after Basauri who is dressed as Shakespeare.
In one scene the men, dressed in white vest and Y-Fronts, daub each other with red paint in a sort of martial arts exercise. Eventually it becomes chaotic and Basauri finds himself de-bagged, bent over, and on the receiving end of the the paint stick. Is it funny? Only if you’re seven-years-old.
A scene from the horrific Titus Andronicus, arguably Shakespeare’s most bloodthirsty play (daughter raped, hands and tongue removed; her persecutors minced up and baked in a pie for their mother to eat; she then killed along with an honour killing of the original victim) starts off as funny when an industrial mincer is brought on stage but the gag goes on for too long.
The demise of Cleopatra, seen here dancing with three full-sized asps, raises a titter as does Basauri’s insistence on wearing out-sized codpieces that get stuck on the limbs of the other cast or on props.
There are flashes of originality but most of the show relies on tired, puerile, gags. At one stage Massey and the gang revolt against Park – a la Julius Caesar – and denounces the show as rubbish. That the deaths weren’t funny and that audiences wanted something to laugh about.
I couldn’t have agreed more.
The Complete Deaths
Tired, gross-out humour fails to inject life into Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths which records every one of Shakespeare’s on-stage fatalities.