Review: The Complete Deaths at Liverpool Playhouse

WHEN physical theatre troupe Spymonkey decided to take on Shakespeare together with writer/director Tim Crouch, they soon hit on the idea of collecting together every onstage death from the entire canon. Lunacy you may think, and it is, but of the inspired variety. Toby Park begins by explaining that it is only the onstage deaths that will be covered, so no Lady Macbeth, no Antigonus pursued by a bear and no Ophelia, much to the dismay of Petra Massey who fancied herself drowning. However, this does leave some 75 deaths to enact, if we include the ill-favour’d fly from Titus Andronicus, and so the play moves on at a fair pace, with a scythe-equipped score-counter keeping track of the numbers on the forestage. Some of the deaths are despatched at speed, at one point Stephan Kreis performs King John and Hamlet’s Gonzago simultaneously, but others are done with more lingering relish. Half the cast of Titus Andronicus are fed into a giant mincing machine, and Romeo and Juliet expire in a splendidly absurd suicide pact atop an upturned stock trolley. There is music too, with a lavishly costumed production number for Cleopatra’s demise that would not have looked out of place at Eurovision (methinks it would have gained more points than Joe and Jake). Another wonderfully contrived piece of surprise musicality is in the beating to death of hector by a mob armed with foam insulation tubes, cleverly cut to length so as to be musically tuned. Surely this must be the only time a Yazoo song will turn up in Shakespeare? Throughout, Aitor Basauri strives in vain to be a “great Shakespearian actor”. The bard appears to him in repeated visions, advising him to “Always stand with your legs apart, roll your ‘R’s and spit when you speak”. Aitor takes him at his word and there is strutting, rolling and spitting in abundance, much to his co-stars’ confusion. There is also much gleeful confusion with language, including Aitor’s mistaken interpretation of Polonius being stabbed through the arras. Add small paper puppets on a tabletop for Cinna the poet and shadow puppetry for the smothering of Desdemona, and all that’s left is the inclusion of flies – lots of flies – more tiny puppets that we see as they are followed by a live camera feed to a big screen. Tim Crouch has tried to inject some moments of serious reflection into the piece, but Spymonkey’s madcap humour combined with infectious collaboration from the audience ensures that the whole evening is joyously bonkers. Performances of The Complete Deaths at Liverpool Playhouse are part of a national and international tour, which continues with dates presently scheduled up to November. Review by Nigel Smith