Shakespeare on speed

Casey Martin, Paris Change and Riley Lewis on stage. Photo: Tom Massey/supplied.

We went along to one of our favourite theatres – The Genesian – to witness The Bard’s long lost first draft.

You thought you knew all of Shakespeare’s works but you were wrong. There was one that got away – the very first play. It was his magnum opus; however, it was a little too “magnum” for normal theatre scheduling, running at roughly 100 hours, and so he broke it down into the 39 plays we know today. 

That’s the revisionist theory three spritely thespians from the Genesian Theatre Company would have us believe. It’s ridiculous, irreverent, far-fetched, brilliant and very funny. William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged) was written by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor who also co-penned The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) successfully mounted by the Genesian five years ago. 

 Like The Complete Works, the Long Lost First Play  is a mash-up of all of Shakespeare’s plots and characters. The premise is that a very large, old book has been discovered under a car park in Leicester, England, next to some old bones.  A number of self-proclaimed experts have confirmed the writing therein to almost certainly be that of William Shakespeare. Not only that, but it seems that this masterpiece originated all the later works; it’s a kind of brain-dump of all his ideas in one epic, meandering, over-cooked narrative. 

Double, double, toil and trouble. Photo: Tom Massey/supplied.

Casey Martin, Paris Change and Riley Lewis are three brave, tireless, perhaps foolhardy actors who have decided to present the entire play (except for some bits) with only a handful of props, limited costume, minimal production elements, tonnes of talent and loads of enthusiasm. 

The result is a frenetic, hilarious performance referencing vaudeville, sketch comedy, Monty Python and good old-fashioned smell-of-a-greasepaint-rag theatre. 

The three actors have as their basic bard-ware: off-white coloured pantaloons, shirt and doublet – a blank canvas, if you will (if you overlook the bright tights and Converse sneakers.)

These are then embellished with indicative accessories – just enough to give an impression. For instance, for Lady Macbeth, the actor dons a medieval headdress. For Hamlet, it’s a black velvet jacket. And for the mermaid, it’s a shiny green skirt. “Mermaid?” you ask. “Is there a mermaid character in Shakespeare?”

No. 

Anyway, the quick costume changes and improvised props, along with the wink/nod self-awareness of the actors, provide a lot of meta humour as well as rapport with the audience. They even single out two audience members, Dale and Gail (possibly not their real names) for occasional, light-hearted jabs. It’s a relaxed atmosphere that allows everyone to overlook the minor stumbles and groan appreciably at the awful puns. 

Don’t be mistaken, though. The frivolity is not equivalent to lack of professionalism, nor does it diminish the talent on stage. These three actors have wonderful comic timing and delivery, and what they are doing is very much a theatrical challenge. 

Eeoyore and Cleopatra. Photo: Tom Massey/supplied.

While there’s a fair bit of slapstick humour and generic gags, a rudimentary knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays will give the jokes more kick. The plot of this pseudo manuscript – to the extent that there is one – reimagines the plots of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and throws familiar characters randomly together. At the centre are Puck, the mischievous sprite from A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  and Ariel, the obedient spirit to Prospero in The Tempest, who are engaged in a fairy feud to undermine one another. 

A parade of iconic and some slightly lesser known Shakespearean characters pop in and out – literally – reciting famous lines out of context and punning like jesters. 

It is not a continuous narrative; they are performing selected scenes from the large tome, skipping ahead to Acts that start numbering in the hundreds. In between scenes, they also offer interesting observations about what influenced Shakespeare and what he, in turn, influenced. These are both humorous and thought provoking. 

It is well known that Shakespeare took liberties with historical facts and was heavily swayed by politics of the time, again, in turn, influencing opinion himself through his work. Not many people, though, have ever noticed the linear connection between Shakespeare and Disney. Is not The Lion King really Hamlet by another name? What about Iago who is a sinister force in both Othello and Aladdin?  As for Ariel, let’s just say they get a lot of mileage out of The Little Mermaid quips. 

As always, The Genesian has delivered a wonderful production on a shoestring. Martin, Change and Lewis bring their very diverse looks and style together to create magical synergy. This is a great opener to the company’s 2021 season and a good excuse to experience this historic theatre before it finally closes its stage doors.

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged) plays the Genesian Theatre, 420 Kent Street, Sydney on Friday and Saturday nights at 7.30pm, with Sunday matinées at 4.30pm, until Saturday, 13 February. Tickets ($30 plus booking fee) from www.genesiantheatre.com.au.