6 actors + 1 stage + 37 plays = Lynne Livingstone’s ‘Shakespearean’. In equal parts a love letter and a satirical call-out, this 45 minute play comprises entirely of lines from Shakespeare’s plays, upcycled to create something entirely new… and entirely familiar!
“While I was editing Richard III […] it occurred to me that I had heard similar lines in other Shakespeare plays. How many other lines had he reworked?” — Livingstone, production programme
This was my first foray into Shakespeare at the George, hosted in the Jacobean in central Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. The traditional staging in the courtyard was eschewed for a cosier setting in the round (though one could rather imagine the glory of a full summer production), creating an intimate feel to the play — at one point, I was, from my aisle-side position, rather in anticipation of a souvenir ink-splotch from Marianna (Louise West) writing a letter to her lover beside me: “doubt thou the stars are fire, but never doubt I love.”
Written for Shakespeare at the George’s 60th anniversary, ‘Shakespearean’ draws on Shakespeare’s most famous and oft-used devices: regicide, overreaching ambition, gender disguises, identity confusion, love at first sight, and revenge…
Livingstone herself made for a fearsome and manipulative Queen Katherine — a Lady-Macbeth-meets-Gertrude villain –, and Georgina Bickerdike’s thankfully un-Hamlet-esque heroine of the piece, the rightful heir Helena, was a show-stealer. Fled from Katherine and her general/lover, Claudio (booandhiss — I’ve never been a fan of any Shakespearean Claudio, though his villainy was played exquisitely!) to the forest of Arden, Helena and her cousin — the former in disguise as kingsman — meet impoverished twins, Antonio and Ferdinand. And so the tropes unwound, albeit with a satisfyingly modern twist for Helena’s love-life, complete with a canonically gay Antonio — no Shakespearean need to shoehorn “Look, I know it’s *technically* bad to fancy a guy, but…” into this play! (In case it wasn’t painfully obvious, I’m fully team “Shakespeare was bi”. And, in my mind, Helena’s ace-aro, and I’m fairly unswayable once I’ve decided a Shakespearean character is queer — watch out for my “sweet prince” sighing Horatio, coming to impromptu read-through groups soon!)
‘Shakespearean’ is a delicious romp through Shakespeare’s career, and will be gratifying to Bard fans. Indeed, a number of the audience were gleefully whispering in recognition of their favourite lines. (A proposal for the anticipated September showing: bingo cards!) It’s also accessible and enjoyable enough on its own terms for those less familiar with Shakespeare’s works.
Livingstone’s play is delightfully cheeky and irreverent. I was dropping my teddy-bear in awe of Puck when I was four years old (granted, my parents had odd ideas about age-appropriate entertainment for a toddler, but I’m now an English teacher who writes about malevolent faeries, so All’s Well That Ends Well?) and the mystification and deification around Shakespeare is irksome to say the least. Brilliant writer? Yes, without a doubt. But he was a brilliant writer churning out multiple plays a year, for profit to boot (I’ve already called him out this week for his “exit pursued by a bear” trick!) and Livingstone captures this perfectly, capturing the true essence of Shakespeare — a witty and playful entertainer.
Edited: Thank you to Duncan for catching my error in leaving Claudio out of the original version!