Edinburgh Fringe #2 – Comedic Riffs on Shakespeare

So, you may have noticed that after my first Edinburgh Fringe post just over two weeks ago, things have gone rather quiet. I meant to blog about the shows I saw, honest, but I got so caught up in the festival madness that I ran out of time. Plus my laptop is ancient and way too heavy to carry around on the off chance that I got a spare minute between shows. But I’m back home now and have nothing else to do but review – so brace yourself for a whole load of Edinburgh Fringe posts.

One of the highlights of my Festival was Shakespeare for Breakfast – a Fringe institution that has been running for 23 years. Sure, getting into town for a 10am start hurts, but you do get free coffee/tea and a croissant for your trouble. Usually, the show consists of a small cast of actors putting a modern spin on one of the bard’s works, with plenty of parody and audience interaction thrown in (in previous years I’d seen King Lear told via TV shows and The Taming of the Shrew, Wills and Kate style). But this year, it was taken to a whole new level. Shakespeare for Breakfast 2014 begins like Twelfth Night, with a woman being washed up on a beach and then assuming a masculine identity. Instead of Viola in Illyria though, this is Steph (or Steve) discovering Shakespeare Land – a fantastical island where Shakespeare’s characters have come to life. These are of course divided into heroes (Prince Hal, Ariel, Hamlet and Kate) and villains (Iago, Richard III, Tamora and Third Witch), played brilliantly by the same four actors. There are cheeky nods to this doubling as Steph gets Richard and Hamlet mixed up, and later on when all four heroes are onstage ‘waiting’ for their villainous counterparts to appear. This diverse range of characters makes the show more accessible than one based on a single work, and allows for witty and unusual hypothetical combinations – such as a lovestruck Hamlet and Third Witch uttering Romeo and Juliet’s lines. There are plenty of groanworthy Shakespeare jokes (‘is this a swagger I see before me?’) and modern references (Ariel is ‘the font of all knowledge’) that give the script its spark, but the rap battles – an inspired alternative to duels – are ruined by poor sound levels. But this is the only criticism I can make of a production that is slick, well written and enjoyable for cast and audience alike. The decision to employ a new creative team has clearly paid off – though I do wonder how it can be followed. Will the writers place a different combination of characters in another hypothetical situation, or revert to the old formula with another work? I look forward to finding out.

Now, considering I helped bring a comedy show to this year’s Fringe, I know shockingly little about the evolution of comedy as an art form. So I went to The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete History of Comedy (Abridged) to educate myself – and, as I’d enjoyed the Complete Works, All the Great Books and Completely Hollywood in previous years, I expected more than a few laughs. Unfortunately, this show didn’t deliver in the way I expected. Its premise that the three man troupe are working through chapters in an ancient text about comedy is dry and unimaginative, and the humour in a manic opening montage of a cavewoman literally dropping babies from between her legs appears to hinge on the fact that ‘she’ is a man in drag. It’s not all bad though: there are interesting nuggets of information about the evolution of slapstick and mime, and a sweet ukulele tribute to comedy greats – including Robin Williams, whose death had reached the news the night before this show. The troupe do an admirable job of maintaining the pace too, shooting on and off stage with their usual lightning speed, but this show is short on the Abridged collection’s usual level of audience interaction. (If you’ve ever seen the Complete Works, I bet you can still remember which line from Hamlet you had to chant over and over again.) The show’s ultimate message was that comedy has the power to heal, and that we should use the comedian in all of us to make the world a better place. This surprisingly touching finale did a great deal to help redeem Comedy Abridged, and inspired me to put renewed effort into my own performances. It’s just a shame that a show about comedy didn’t make me laugh more.

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