Edinburgh Fringe 2013
A daring production which has ruthlessly abandoned the company’s signature light touch in order to make satire bite. This Shakespeare for Breakfast will wake you up and no mistake.
Shakespeare For Breakfast is one of the best-known names at the Fringe. In over two decades of shows, audiences have been treated to irreverent, witty takes on the inComplete Works. The formula carves out easy access routes into the forests of iambic pentameter, faithful but funny, a crowd-pleaser – particularly with a certain kind of well-meaning English teacher and a fuzzy favourite with which to begin a hectic day at the Fringe.
Someone clever once said that comedy is when you fall down a manhole, tragedy is when I cut my finger. This auld truism was evidently a guiding principle of Shakespeare’s craft. From the gulling of Malvolio to the frustration of Shylock, the Swan was a master of generating groundswells for his heroes and against his villains. Under the banter and badinage, Taming of the Shrew is the story of how a willfully independent woman is broken in body and spirit and made to conform to the petty tyranny of her male relatives deferring to her husband’s will as unquestioned master of the household.
The play contains scenes unsuitable for early 21st Century sensibilities. Scenes that are as brutal as the bear baiting available a stone’s throw from Shakespeare’s own venues. There are moments as nasty as a recent snapshot of a certain domestic goddess being publicly strangled by her husband. The uncomfortable point for any producer is that these scenes were written to be laugh out loud funny. It’s a problem tackled head on by this year’s Shakespeare For Breakfast ensemble.
Audiences weaned on 10 Things I Hate About You – the classic Hollywood teeny bopper adaptation – are in for a shock. Bleary eyed regular Shakespeare for Breakfast punters, clinging to the lifeline of coffee and croissants, are in for a sharp wake up. Gone are the usual constellation of contemporary pop culture references, replaced by a single underlying satirical theme: the royal baby and the dutiful young princess Kate forcibly moulded to fit the expectations of her station. Her own voice – her very identity – mercilessly subsumed under a weight of masculine expectations.
This is neither a tight nor a tidy production. The staging is not uniformly even. The usual prop vignettes are absent and their absence is noticed. The cast’s energy and focus levels bow and occasionally scrape. Not having the guy who looks like Prince Harry play Prince Harry was a bold move. The soundscape does little to create a sense of time or place. The costumes might be in need of revision too – either the ladies skirts need to be longer or their pants bigger.
But this production does stand out. It is hugely memorable. It’s dark. Really dark. This is what satire is meant to be – almost too biting to be funny. Shakespeare’s most misogynistic text has been as roughly handled as his heroine. It has been used as a bludgeon to make a blunt point. Amid the schmaltz and ceremony of the royal arrival this production has posed the hard questions in a search for uncomfortable answers. In doing so they have dared play with a successful formula. The effect is like being set upon by an outraged posse of Care Bears and lollipop ladies.