Posted by: Richard Frost | 3 Apr 2020

Reduced Shakespeare Company: All the Great Books (Abridged!) review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: April 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Two years into his degree, Richard Frost finally finds English Literature coming into its own as the Reduced Shakespeare Company thrills Durham

For those of you who like your theatre grand, complicated and challenging, the Royal Shakespeare Company is probably the best group around. But whilst a good drama or tragedy can last for centuries, comedies date notoriously quickly, leaving future generations to puzzle over bizarre cultural references and contemporary in-jokes. Somehow as you precariously balance the ‘comedy’, a history text-book and the ever-reliable York notes, the joke seems to get lost.

So if like me you need a fun, stress-free night out as you rapidly sink underneath looming exams and missed essay deadlines (damn, there goes another one), you could do far worse than track down the thoroughly modern comedy of the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

90 Minutes – Considerably Quicker than a Degree
It was indeed a fantastic coup for Gala Theatre to persuade the original American Reduced Shakespeare Company to stop off at Durham on their brief UK tour to perform All the Great Books (Abridged!).

Set in an American high school, their 5th original play transforms the audience into ‘Remedial Literature Class 101’. It’s the job of the wannabe thespian Drama Teacher (Graham Vick), the hyperactive and distinctly weasley US Kid (Matt Blair) and “just call me Coach” Coach (Tim Beckmann) to teach us the history of literature as we cram for the all-too-familiar exams.

Just 90 minutes to teach us 90 books ranging from Homer’s Illiad to Harry Potter. Or to put it another way, 90 minutes of the funniest stage script I’ve ever heard, creating almost constant laughter for a fantastic 90 minutes.

Promotional material for All The Great Books (Abridged!) show by Reduced Shakespeare Company

This play is truly built on the tremendous script of Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. Although admittedly launching into an unspectacular opening with the combined works of Dickens into the Great Expecterations soap opera, the 1st Act exploded emphatically with the Greek epic The Idiottity (Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey handily combined).

Obviously, with a play built on playful mocking of literature, your enjoyment will depend to some extent on how many books you’ve read. It’s true that literary in-jokes from squashing Kafka’s beetle in The Metamorphoses to the fluent (apparently, so I’m told) Spanish mocking of Don Quixote won’t be recognized by everyone; however, there are still more than enough jokes to entertain those of us who would struggle in a literacy battle with a monkey.

So whilst Achilles’ precise motivations in The Illiad may not exactly be common knowledge, everybody can enjoy the brilliant slapstick choreography of the 2-man Trojan Horse dance as it waltzes across stage whilst barely avoiding pursuers, and the snotty kid screaming “I’m invisible!” when told he’s invincible.

Join the Fun
By the interval, the audience had already been converted to the irresistible RSC staples of energy and light-hearted comedy. Act 2 then saw an unprecedented amount of audience participation in the Gala, with the chaotic inflatable football battle between Coach and the audience and the roar of fake sneezes accompanying every mention of Plato to infuriate Coach.

The division between actors and audience was emphatically subverted and truly helped the crowd to feel part of the performance. We were even treated to the sight of an unwitting audience member dressed in drag and becoming Virginia Woolf in a literary Blind Date stand-off with George Eliot and Jane Austen. “Kevin from the audience”, we salute you!

Arguably equaling the achievements of the script was the stunning energy and comic timing of its three actors. “All of our energy comes from bottles” explained Graham Vick with a knowing wink, after being remorselessly involved onstage for almost the whole duration of the show. Possible Rio Ferdinand-esque drug scandals aside, it’s a true testament to the acting ability and sheer endurance of the three that they can remain in character and maintain such radically different onstage personas for the whole night.

Beckhams, Russians and Riotous Applause
It helps that they can rely on such a hilarious script, but it’s also important that they clearly exercise an unrivalled freedom in adapting it to respond to particular audiences. The American group clearly took the pains to accommodate the English obsession with ‘soccer’ and taunted us with the transfer of Beckham to Madrid before playfully confessing ‘I’m an American, I don’t even know what that means’.

Soon after, they were using the opportunity of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to take a sideswipe at Russia’s ongoing attempts to take over Europe through Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich. Just two of many instances of the effort the RSC have taken to keep the play topical with this their 15th UK tour, and they fully deserved the accompanying audience laughter and applause.

However, some of the show’s most memorable moments came from ad-libbing. Whilst a shattered Matt Blair joked that “maybe these costume changes are just a real bitch”, the fully armoured Greek hero Achilles was mocked with “you look just like Russell Crowe”, and Matt Blair responded to calls to stop hiding behind an American flag with “Why not? George Bush does it”.

Even the actors were reduced to hysterics as these impromptu one-liners caught them off-guard and led a real sense of individuality to the show, and it was impossible not to believe Graham Vick as he enthusiastically admitted afterwards that “It’s like a party out there!”

Really by normal standards of theatre, this play should fall completely flat. With just one loosely developed location, three actors who remain almost constantly onstage without any character development, and only the occasional use of lighting and sound (notably in the brilliant, heated arguments of James Joyce’s interior monologues), the audience should be bored senseless.

However, this is anything but a normal production and plays unashamedly to the RSC’s strengths, with the comic brilliance of both the writing and performing consistently shining through. It may not be highbrow theatre but this was indisputably the most entertaining stage performance I’ve ever seen, suggesting that this company deserve every bit as much credit as their critically acclaimed namesakes.


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