It’s a brave actor who takes to the stage of the Barbican to play Hamlet less than a year after Benedict Cumberbatch did so to seismic nightly fangasms.
But in an admirably ambitious staging of all but one of Shakespeare’s plays in a single week, legendary avant-garde theatre company Forced Entertainment have found the perfect Danish prince.
‘Hamlet’s a bottle of vinegar,’ notes the company’s deadpan leader Tim Etchells (pictured above). ‘It’s in an elegant black bottle, so you can read all kinds of things into it.’
Forced Entertainment like such high-concept projects: the last time the Sheffield company came to the Barbican it was with their mind-boggling , 24-hour-long quiz show ‘Quizoola!’. Now they return with ‘Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare’, in which six Forced Ents actors have each taken on six of Shakespeare’s plays (the ho-hum ‘Henry VIII’ has had the chop), adapting them into 45-minute narrations in which the ‘cast’ consist of household objects manipulated by the actor.
‘It’s weird in England,’ says Etchells. ‘People are always saying, “Would you ever try your hand at Shakespeare?”. And I’m always like, “Dunno, it’s not really what I’m busy with”’.
The company were approached to participate in the national #Shakespeare400 celebrations that mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and hit upon an idea that fitted in with their playful, experimental aesthetic.
‘Hamlet is a bottle of vinegar’
‘What we’re doing is like taking the engine out of the car and putting all the little bits on the ground and then assembling it in order. There’s something analytic about it, slightly dispassionate,’ says Etchells. ‘If the comedies aren’t hilariously funny it’s not really a problem for us – it’s more Shakespeare’s problem.’
Cast member Cathy Naden (above) gives me an excerpt of ‘King John’, in which a series of kitchen utensils square off against each other. It’s weird and funny and oddly engrossing: a surreal crash course in Shakespeare that cuts out the waffle. Forced Ents may be one of our country’s least conventional theatre companies, but they make a strangely good fit with our most popular writer. Will this be it for them and Shakespeare? ‘Never say never,’ says Etchells with a laugh. ‘He’s got under our skin a bit.
'Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare' is on at the Barbican until Sunday March 6.