Theatre Company: Bristol Shakespeare Festival
Cast: Luca Thompson, Chris Yapp, Alex Gartshore, Alison Campbell, Kirsty Cox
Plot: A theatre company put on Shakespeare’s critically worst play, the Two Gentlemen of Verona. One of the cast (Thompson) calls Shakespeare on his pretentiousness.
Shakespeare is well known for his great plays. And there are several of them. Hamlet and Macbeth are plays that any actor worth his salt is queuing to get their hands on. Midsummer’s Night Dream is a perfect example of the meticulous comedy that the writer was able to orchestrate. And who doesn’t know Romeo and Juliet? But the truth is that Shakespeare also wrote a lot of duds that critics have given greatness due to their era and iambic pentameters, when in truth, there are, sadly, lesser pieces of work. Two Gentlemen of Verona, possibly his first play, is about an awkward love triangle and a plot so thin, half the play is spent talking about plot points covered twice previously to stretch out the running time. Shakespeare’s Worst is a play written by Mike Reiss, head writer of one of the better seasons of the Simpsons, and calls Shakespeare out on his half-cooked creation.
It starts tamely enough with the two Gentlemen in question, Chris Yapp’s Valentine and Alex Gartshore’s Proteus, playing the play straight, diving into actual monologues from the text with performances expected from the usual Shakespeare material. But there is a difference. Luca Thompson, cast in the role of the fool, Launce, is self-aware of the fact he is an actor in a play, and proceeds to speak, in a vocabulary most definitely not corresponding to the usual Shakespeare, ridiculing the play. And this is how Shakespeare’s Worst spends its entire 70 minute running time. The play unfolds, relatively straight, although highly trimmed to stop the joke from running thin, but with Luca Thompson standing on the sidelines as the reluctant narrator. He pauses the play to offer a 21st century translation of what is going on, mocks the intentions of the audience and scoffs at what Shakespeare considers comedy. Thompson’s commentary is hilarious, one for the cynics in the audience, the dry sarcasm a perfect antidote for anyone who hasn’t quite got what Shakespeare is really about (why they would be the audience in the first place is a criticism I won’t get into). The play continues onwards, finding new and exciting ways to ridicule Shakespeare from muting Kirsty Cox’s emotional monologue to Thompson helping himself to the food props in the background. There is only so much that the play can do after a while though. This is essentially Two Gentlemen of Verona with a humouristic Sparknotes on the side, cracking jokes. It is scripted stand-up comedy (I would love to see this play with a famous comedian in the role of Launce), which works for a point, but does it fuel 70 minutes? As it rolls to an end, there is only so much that can be done with the material, Thompson asked to keep the whole audience enthralled (the rest of the cast are strong, but trapped as the butt of the jokes rather than the likeable joker), with his jests. There is the sinking feeling that while Thompson jokes about the low production values of this particular play are, you are still watching a play with cheap production values. For £13.00 a ticket, that is a significantly difficult hurdle to get over. Shakespeare’s Worst is a pleasantly amusing distraction, yet it is the kind of play that only be as good as comedy designed to ridicule past work can be. The material could be argued to be little more than a sarcastic article online. It’s hardly the “Worst”, but it’s not striving to be the best either.
Final Verdict: A laugh-out loud production that runs out of steam over the course of 70 minutes, but still charms effortlessly.