BOILING the Bard’s output down to a single show might strike traditionalists as an act of blasphemy, but Matt Rippy
BOILING the Bard’s output down to a single show might strike traditionalists as an act of blasphemy, but Matt Rippy of the Reduced Shakespeare Company says it’s just what the playwright would have wanted.
The Houston-born actor and three fellow thespians are performing The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare at the Oxford Playhouse in May.
The comedy, which launched in 1987 and ran at the West End’s Criterion Theatre for nine years, condenses all 37 plays into a series of quickfire skits. In the space of 97 minutes Othello is performed as a rap song and Titus Andronicus — famed for its gruesome, cannibalistic climax — is presented as a TV cookery programme.
Most famously, the American cast races through royal tragedy Hamlet in under a minute — and performs it again backwards for the finale.
While such a set-up might raise the hackles of fusty academics, Matt argued it was in keeping with Shakespeare’s anarchic spirit.
The 35-year-old, who is also directing the show, said: “We don’t want to pull him down off his pedestal, just roll him around in the mud for a bit — it’s too much fun not to.”
“A lot of people are afraid to engage with his plays because they’re quite intimidating, with all those fancy and highfalutin words.
“But I like to remind people that he was doing what rap artists do now. He was having fun with language and making up words.
“Shakespeare wasn’t being reverent at all. Quite the opposite. He was a naughty boy.
“He appealed to the highbrow crowd with his lofty references to classical works, but down on the floor the groundlings — who were usually drunk — loved all the codpiece humour and the cross-dressing.
“We’re just keeping up a long-standing tradition by appealing to both, and by the end of it we hope people won’t be afraid of him.”
The Complete Works Of Shakespeare was written by Daniel Singer, who founded the Reduced Shakespeare Company in 1981, and colleagues Adam Long and Jess Winfield.
It was the first in a series of Complete plays the company has written, including 1992’s The Complete History Of America and 1995 follow-up The Bible: The Complete Word Of God.
The current UK tour, also starring Gary Fannin, Matthew Pearson and Ben Stratton, runs at 50 venues from April to June.
When it finishes, it will return to the West End for a month-long run at the Leicester Square Theatre.
Each performance varies slightly as it is semi-improvised and incorporates topical references from national and even local headlines.All the texts are re-enacted by three of the cast, who take a night off in turns.
Matt said: “For much of the show, we use the audience as a fourth cast member. We drag people up on stage and things like that.
“Essentially, we want to make it as active an experience as possible. If we could make it a scratch-and-sniff play, then we would.
“We obviously have to take some shortcuts to fit the plays in. I love the audacity of being Yanks coming over here and messing with what’s essentially a cultural institution.
“For example, Shakespeare wrote about 14 or 16 comedies, but we realised it’s the same plot over and over and over again.
“We decided to reduce them to a single, quintessential comedy — it’s a short little piece and then the comedies are done. Then you’ve got the histories, with all those kings passing the throne from one generation to the next.
“It’s just like a game of American football with a crown instead of a ball, so that’s how we do it — and that’s how we can squeeze all the plays into 97 minutes.
“Some people call it cheating, but I prefer to think of it as poetic licence.”
Matt, who starred in BBC sci-fi drama Torchwood and even played bit parts in Hollywood films The Dark Knight and Hellboy II, joined the Reduced Shakespeare Company in 1996. He has performed with them in the West End and Broadway as well as several world tours and at workshops in schools around the UK.
He said: “It’s so much fun. They are great guys to work with and it doesn’t feel like real work most of the time. It feels like going to work in a playground.
“We get all sorts of people coming to our shows. There are the academics who want to have a bit of a laugh, but we get plenty of people who are just comedy fans in general.
“I especially enjoy it when students and young people come in. It’s a chance to dispel this idea that seeing a Shakespeare play has to be a formal experience.
“We hope that we’re like a ‘gateway drug’ for our audiences — if we’re their first exposure to Shakespeare, hopefully they’ll go away and give another play a chance.”
*The Complete Works Of Shakespeare comes to the Oxford Playhouse on Friday, May 3. Box office 01865 305305 or visit www.oxfordplayhouse.com
*You can also catch it at other local theatres. View full tour dates at www.reducedshakespeare.com