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Putting Shakespeare on the table

Think Shakespeare's too big a bite to chew in any form? Think again. Forced Entertainment's bringing the complete works of the Bard to a tabletop at the Foreign Affairs festival (Jun 25-Jul 5).

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Photo by Vlatka Horvat

Spanning the duration of the Foreign Affairs festival, Forced Entertainment’s newest project sees the Bard’s complete works performed on a small – really small – stage.

British theatre group Forced Entertainment has long been known for its durational performances – shows lasting six or 12 or 24 hours. Now, with Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare, it’s attempting a marathon of another sort. As part of Berliner Festpiele’s Foreign 
Affairs festival, Forced Entertainment is tackling the playwright’s full 
canon. Over the course of nine days, the company will present 36 plays, condensed to
 40 minutes apiece. Each will be performed by
 a single actor, sitting at a modestly sized table, using everyday objects for all the characters. Performer Richard Lowdon explained the project.

How did this project come about?

Forced Entertainment has worked a lot with this idea of imagined action, with asking you to imagine a whole series of things without actually staging them. We became very interested in Shakespeare’s incredibly large and epic plots, but using a tabletop as the stage, and everyday objects as the characters. It’s almost like lo-fi puppetry, or like watching a diagram slowly unravel itself.

There are already so many Shakespeare adaptations out there. Why do another one?

It partially comes from the idiocy of doing it on a tabletop. We’re taking these plays, which are well-known and fantastically narratively driven, and we’re making you actually care about the pepper pot or the salt cellar or the tube of glue. You’re investing in these rather stupid objects.

Can you talk about one of the plays you’re doing?

At the minute, I’m working on Macbeth. We talk about ‘casting’ the plays – you look at a whole bunch of objects and say, what would be a good Macbeth? I decided to do it entirely out of things in the cellar. All the stuff is half-used and slightly dirty, and that feels good. Macbeth is a half-filled linseed oil bottle and Banquo is a tube of wood glue. The three witches are little test pots of paint. The murderers are jam jars filled with rusty drill bits. It’s ludicrous, but you start to identify those objects as people with feelings. There’s a real pleasure looking at a linseed oil bottle and thinking, “Oh no, he’s going to make that decision,” or “This is a terrible dilemma.”

What are some of the other objects you’re using?

I’m doing Much Ado About Nothing entirely with bottles and glasses. It’s all wine bottles and spirit bottles and different shaped glasses. Because it’s a comedy, it’s got this frothy, slightly frivolous edge to it. I’ve also been working on Henry VI. Henry VI is a small, old, clear glass bottle. He’s a very weak king, so he’s surrounded by bottles much bigger than him. Suffolk, who’s a villain, is a small bottle of chili sauce. The queen, who’s also a slightly dodgy character, is a bottle of vinegar.

Are you keeping Shakespeare’s language?

For the main part, we’re not keeping the text. It’s absolutely modern language. It’s a recounting, a paraphrasing of the situation. Just very occasionally I find myself using the odd little Shakespearean line, when something gets to the core of a moment.

An individual play runs as long as a TV episode, but the whole project is quite the haul.

Each one is fun on its own – bite-sized and easy-to-digest. But the process is a marathon. As a viewer, the more plays you see, the more you see all these iconic devices and tropes.

And the objects – do they recur?

There’s a lot of crossover, which is fun. One minute, the pepper pot is the main character, and the next it’s just the messenger. And I have to say, the objects manage it very well. 

 WORKS: TABLE TOP SHAKESPEARE Jun 25-Jul 4 | Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Schaperstr. 24, Wilmersdorf. U-Bhf Spichernstr.