Anyone who’s familiar with the Spymonkey oeuvre will know just one thing in advance of this show; it will be anarchic. It will probably be surreal; very likely subversive; there may be nudity (or at least flashes thereof); there will almost certainly be clowning; it’s bound to break most of the rules of drama; and it will create a situation where a reviewer has no choice but to include no fewer than five semi-colons in a sentence.
This was our fourth exposure to Spymonkey. Initially I resisted their siren call, because I thought they sounded just too silly. But I was encouraged to check them out by Top Management at the Royal and Derngate (I know, get me) and they were right. The stylish nonsense of Oedipussy, the scurrilous chaos of Cooped (which I think remains my favourite), the wayward farce of Every Last Trick and now The Complete Deaths, where Toby and the team attempt to recreate all the deaths that happen onstage in the entire works of Shakespeare. No off-stage deaths though. Oh no. That’s very clear. Helping us to identify and appreciate each individual death, an LED banner at the top of the proscenium arch declares the name of each relevant play and victim in Brechtian splendour, whilst another LED counter counts down the number of deaths left to re-enact, the number steadily reducing with ghoulish inevitability. The four performances in Northampton are described as previews in advance of the show opening next week as part of the Brighton Festival. So I guess what we saw last night might not be quite the finished product? But I’ll just have to assume it is.
You enter the auditorium to the sight of four stand up microphones in a row, which led me to expect some form of Jersey Boys entertainment. (Actually, Spymonkey channelling their inner Frankie Vallis would be well worth a ticket). But that would have been at odds with the sight of Petra Massey and Stephan Kreiss taking turns playing at dead on the stage floor, whilst the other films a fly wandering and buzzing all over them. (It’s not a real fly. No flies were harmed during the making of this show, the programme promises us. If that’s the case, they managed to find at least one fly that well deserves its Equity card.) The fly acts as a metaphor for death and a symbol of mortality, throughout the show. That’s no doubt the brainwave of Spymonkey boss Toby Park, who sees, in this production, an opportunity for true artistic revelation, to pare down the overblown inadequacies of a theatre company known for mere slapstick, to challenge its overfed and overcosseted petit bourgeois audience into confronting the reality of life and death, to take the theatrical art to the highest level of achievement; in fact, to indulge in overwhelmingly up-himself self-important pomposity. And he does it so well.
As a stark contrast to the sheer dramatic integrity of Toby’s approach to the work, the other members of the company are not perhaps quite so artistically aspirational. Aitor wants to be a grand actor, Petra wants some financial security (and to play Ophelia – not allowed, she’s offstage when she dies), and Stephan just wants to play. And that’s the strength of this show – Toby going in one direction (arty, with a capital F), the others in the other. Things come to a crunch when Toby’s very future with the company is questioned, resulting in his spectacular hurt puppy-dog kicked in the nuts look. Still, he always has the graphic design to fall back on. I think I have his business card somewhere.
And of course, there’s all the usual silly Spymonkey escapades to enjoy. Some of those interpretations of Shakespearean deaths are just brilliant. Aitor’s Romeo, getting his codpiece caught on the stepladder, as he lands on top of Petra’s Juliet had me in hysterics. The interminably and inappropriately jolly characters in Titus Andronicus, Petra’s interpretation of Thisbe as a bit of a scrubber, and the fabulously staged death of Hector in Troilus and Cressida by percussion tubing to Yazoo’s Only You, are all examples of their creatively inventive re-enactments. The pathos captured in the scene where Cinna the Poet is murdered was – literally – unreal. For Brutus’ death at the hands of Strato, Aitor seeks a member of the audience to join him on stage – so you have been warned. As it happens, George, who was Aitor’s assistant for the first night, had a brilliantly natural deadpan comic delivery and their double act worked a treat. There were many other remarkable, and hilarious, deaths but going into too much detail will only spoil it for you. Suffice to say that probably the crowning glory of the re-enactments was Petra’s tasteful and sensitive portrayal of the death of Cleopatra. Never has an asp had more fun. And even Shakespeare himself makes an appearance!
A very funny, probably unique evening of Shakespearean entertainment. I haven’t seen Mrs Chrisparkle laugh this much since the time I explained to her why I had been too busy to do the laundry. The company has such a wonderful sense of fun and that enviable total lack of inhibition that it is impossible not to love them. Once it has opened at Brighton Festival next week, the tour carries on throughout the country and Istanbul and Chicago, would you believe. No better stressbuster than to enjoy two middle-aged gentlemen in their underpants smearing each other with blood. A palpable hit. (Sorry, but it had to be said.)