BRIGHTON, England — At some point in the second half of The Complete Deaths, one of the performers declares: “I’m going to do two deaths at the same time—the first time it’s been done in the history of theater!”
There is certainly good reason to keep up the pace, in a two-hour show in which we’ve got all of William Shakespeare’s 75 death scenes to get through.
Next up is The Tempest. Stephan Kreiss is playing both Alonso and Gonzalo as a wicked plot to murder them in their sleep unfolds. He is reveling in a double-death bed scene when another member of the cast starts complaining: These aren’t real deaths, they are imagined—a play within a play.
“Everything’s a play within a play!” shouted one actor, offering a brusque critique of a common Shakespearean plot device.
As the audience at the Brighton Festival began to laugh, another mumbled: “All the world’s a stage...”
This is a madcap production that leans more heavily on the slapstick than the literary criticism, but it finds time to toy with Shakespearean tropes and the legacy of his work on the way death is depicted to this day.
The Complete Deaths is a riot of blood, nudity, and unexpected laughs. The physical comedy company even succeeds in finding humor amid the gore and mutilation at the heart of the Titus Andronicus. “If you’re in your seats expecting an evening of shallow buffoonery, I’m afraid you’re in for something different,” said Toby Park as the show began, only half-telling the truth.
The ensemble cast of four use their real names as they squabble on stage about how they are going to pull this off.
“This whole idea is ridiculous—every onstage death is ridiculous! Shakespeare is a good idea, yes, but people want to see the funny parts. We’re a comedy company!”
There are plenty of funny parts, some more base than others.
When Hamlet is seen forcing a sword deep into Polonius from behind—one of the cast shouts: “No! He’s stabbed through the arras!”
The famous stage direction in Act III, Scene IV of Hamlet refers to a traditional wall-hanging tapestry.
Tim Crouch, the show’s director, reread the plays to create an authoritative list of the Shakespearean characters who are killed off onstage and how they met their end.
“Early on we made the decision to include only those deaths that unambiguously happen onstage. This policy has caused some heartache for the company—no Lady Macbeth, no Ophelia (almost)—but, without it, you’d be in your seats for a very long time,” he explained in the program notes.
In total Crouch found 75 deaths in 37 plays—if you include the “ill-favor’d fly” in Titus Andronicus. That breaks down as 23 stabbings, 12 sword fights, 12 suicides, five poisonings, four deaths by wounds, three mob killings, three miscellaneous, two throat cuts, two explosions, two heartbreaks, two beatings, and one smothering.
As the audience filed in at the start of the show, Petra Massey was lying onstage while Kreiss manipulated a plastic fly on a wire around her. A handheld camera beamed the insect’s every move onto a big screen at the back of the stage.
An electronic counter on the righthand side of the stage indicated that the countdown from 75 was ready to begin.
The first big beast to be felled was Richard III. He was stripped and cut down as a swirl of techno throbs and horse-like figures in gas masks pranced manically around him.
The most impressively rendered demise was that of Cleopatra: Massey began the routine with a sexy Bollywood dance and ended it walking like an Egyptian. And there was no danger that Shakespeare’s snake metaphor would be left too oblique for the audience, as the three men in skintight snake suits gyrated around Cleopatra. “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch/Which hurts, and is desired,” she said, before the fatal bite from Antony and Cleopatra.
Mark Antony’s death is the most drawn out in the Shakespeare canon. It takes 110 lines for the Roman general to die after failing to unite the empires of Rome and Egypt.
“In order to honor that death, I would like us all to spend this time thinking about the failure of political change in the Middle East,” said Park with a straight face.
As the deaths come quick, fast, and funny, Shakespeare appears from beyond the grave to insist that the actors take his work more seriously. And amid the chaos of four clowns at full speed, some of Shakespeare’s most haunting words do retain their power.
“O, I die, Horatio,” cries Hamlet. “The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit...The rest is silence.”