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The next time you open your kitchen cabinet, pause for a moment. That bottle of ketchup; that tin of tomatoes; that pepper mill — could they have star potential? They certainly could in the hands of Tim Etchells. With his company Forced Entertainment, he plans to stage all of Shakespeare’s plays using a humble table-top and a cast of household objects. If you’ve always suspected your corkscrew to be a bit of a diva — well, you may be right.
Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare will join a wealth of performances, talks and exhibitions celebrating 2016 as the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. And it is surely a mark of just how resilient, flexible and remarkable the Bard’s work remains that among the actors gearing up to play Hamlet this year will be a bottle of balsamic vinegar.
But wait a minute. There are some searching soliloquies in Hamlet that are pretty important. Will a bottle of vinegar really be up to the job? Etchells explains that audiences won’t have to endure the likes of pepper mills grinding through famous speeches: each play is condensed, narrated by the human performer in charge of the objects, with just a few quotes from the texts.
“It is an absurd idea and, on the face of it, a little bit unpromising,” he says. “But the weird thing is that, given the way the performers tell the plots and the attention they pay to the objects, it does have that strange quality of puppetry. After a time you invest as a watcher — and you start getting involved with the pepper pot or the bottle of ketchup or the little vase.”
In fact, he adds, quirky as the project is, it has a serious point. It appeals to that childlike sense of play that is at the core of theatre. It harks back, too, to Shakespeare’s famous opening to Henry V, in which he calls on the audience to work their imaginations. “Great acting is always about what you don’t do,” he says. “You leave something for the audience to do.”
As with all great shows, the right casting is crucial. Humanoid objects work best, says Etchells, and light plastic things have little stage presence. Some items fit their parts because of their function: a torch for ardent Romeo, a brandy bottle for boozy Falstaff, a canister of flea-killer for murderous Claudius. Others are cast for their nature: a paper flower for delicate, trampled Ophelia, cardboard tubes for fake-friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, balls of string for the witches who lead Macbeth on.
This Complete Works joins an honourable tradition of eccentric Shakespeares. The Reduced Shakespeare Company boiled the entire oeuvre down to an evening’s entertainment, and a recent staging of King Lear involved a flock of sheep. Among all the august productions this year will be other examples of less serious fare — such as The Complete Deaths and Shit-Faced Shakespeare. But there is often method in the madness. Etchells observes that staging all Shakespeare’s drama in distilled form reveals its vast range and variety.
“The comedies have this amazing mathematical purity,” he says. “There’s a kind of algebra to the plot of those that is very pleasing when you put it on to the table because you really see the schematic of it. And then there’s something like Titus Andronicus, which is a crazy play, very violent and weird. They all work differently.”
But once a bottle of oil has played Macbeth, where next? Might it fancy a crack at Ibsen? Etchells points out that some plays would struggle on the table-top — particularly those with “handfuls of characters discussing stuff”. Ironically, it’s epic drama that works.
RSC Shakespeare on Screen
A chance to catch seminal Shakespeare films, some very rarely seen. Highlights include Trevor Nunn’s 1979 Macbeth with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen (January 9), a 1963 As You Like It with Vanessa Redgrave (January 19), Peter Brook’s austere King Lear with Paul Scofield (January 23), the praised 2009 Hamlet with David Tennant (January 31) and showings of rare silent movies.
King and Country
The RSC brings together its excellent, subtle stagings of Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V in a four-play cycle. Power shifts and moral complexities underline the central question: what makes a good leader? Gregory Doran directs, with David Tennant as Richard II, Jasper Britton as Henry IV and Antony Sher as Falstaff.
barbican.org.uk, January 12-24
Romeo and Juliet
Barbican Hall, London
Sir Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Berlioz’s dramatic symphony, launching a series of music inspired by Shakespeare: Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (February 16), Strauss’s Macbeth (February 25), a family concert (February 7).
barbican.org.uk, January 22
Hamlet in Russia
Royal Festival Hall, London
More Shakespeare-inspired music from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Shostakovich’s darkly satirical film score for Hamlet (January 27) is followed by Dvorak’s Othello (February 3), Sibelius’s The Tempest (February 10), Richard Strauss’s Macbeth (February 26) and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (April 15).
Garrick Theatre, London
Return of this excellent play by Lolita Chakrabarti (first shown at the Tricycle Theatre) about Ira Aldridge, the black American actor who played Othello in 1833. Adrian Lester reprises his fine performance in this often shocking drama about prejudice in theatre.
branaghtheatre.com, January 23-February 27
The Tempest / The Winter’s Tale
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London
Following up on Pericles and Cymbeline, two more late Shakespeare dramas presented by candlelight in stagings that reveal the mature Shakespeare’s adaptable style. Michael Longhurst directs The Winter’s Tale; outgoing artistic director Dominic Dromgoole stages The Tempest, with Tim McMullan as Prospero.
shakespearesglobe.com, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ from January 28, ‘The Tempest’ from February 17, both to April 22
The Herbal Bed
Royal and Derngate, Northampton
A revival of Peter Whelan’s play about Shakespeare’s daughter and the impact on the family of an accusation of adultery. An emotional thriller and a fascinating evocation of life in the Shakespeare household.
royalandderngate.co.uk, February 5-27, then touring (ett.org.uk)
The Merry Wives
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Barrie Rutter directs and plays Falstaff in this joint staging between Northern Broadsides and the New Vic Theatre of Shakespeare’s jolly comedy about the fat knight getting his comeuppance.
newvictheatre.org.uk, February 5-27, then touring (northern-broadsides.co.uk)
Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol
The enterprising Tobacco Factory opens a season of celebratory Shakespeare with Hamlet directed by Andrew Hilton. Alan Mahon plays the troubled Dane.
tobaccofactorytheatres.com, February 11-April 30, then touring (stf-theatre.org.uk)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream — A Play for the Nation
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Combining professional and amateur actors, Erica Wyman’s production will rove around the country joining forces with local amateur drama groups who, in keeping with the spirit of the play, will undertake the “Mechanicals”. One Flute works for the railway; a Bottom teaches rugby.
rsc.org.uk, from February 17, then at venues around the country from March 16
The Devil Speaks True
The Vaults, London
Banquo is suspicious about Macbeth’s swift rise to power. This sensory Goat and Monkey production imagines the story from his point of view, using headphones and binaural sound, the sounds of war and the smell of fir trees to evoke settings and intertwining the text with interviews with ex-servicemen.
goatandmonkey.co.uk, February 17-27, then touring
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Young black actor Paapa Essiedu will play the lead in Simon Godwin’s fast and furious new RSC staging, bringing a new twist to Shakespeare’s great tragedy.
rsc.org.uk, March 12-August 13. Broadcast live to cinemas June 8
Royal Exchange, Manchester
Don Warrington plays King Lear in Yvonne Brewster’s new staging: a co-production with Talawa Theatre Company and Birmingham Rep (where it plays May 19-28).
royalexchange.co.uk, April 1-May 7
Kings of War
Where the RSC cycle brings the story up to Henry V, this staging starts with that troubled monarch and moves forward through Henry VI and Richard III. Here they become modern-day political leaders faced with decisions about whether to go to war. This epic, radical production from Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep is directed by the brilliant Ivo van Hove.
barbican.org.uk, April 22-May 1
National Theatre, London
A day of screenings and seminars whose contributors include the National’s ex-artistic director Nicholas Hytner
nationaltheatre.org.uk, April 22
The Shakespeare Show
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and live on BBC2
David Tennant hosts a show screened live to television to celebrate Shakespeare’s legacy across the art forms, with performances from the worlds of theatre, music, dance and literature.
rsc.org.uk, April 23
The Complete Walk
South Bank, London
Shakespeare’s Globe creates a giant pop-up cinema event along the river Thames: 37 screens will each show a new short film, one for each play. Scenes from Hamlet will be filmed in Denmark, Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt and Romeo and Juliet in Verona, creating an interactive commemoration exactly 400 years on.
shakespearesglobe.com, April 23-24
Leicester Square Theatre, London
Generally a cast member blind drunk is very bad news, but here Magnificent Bastard Productions deliberately perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream nightly with one actor in an advanced state of inebriation. The rest of the cast improvise
leicestersquaretheatre.ticketsolve.com, April 26-June 11
The Complete Deaths
Brighton Festival, Brighton
From drowning in a butt to suicide by snakebite, poison, stabbing, smothering and being baked in a pie: experimental theatre-maker Tim Crouch has counted a total of 74 onstage human deaths in Shakespeare’s plays and drawn them together for this show for Spymonkey theatre company — plus a fly that shuffles off its mortal coil in Titus Andronicus. Could be grave stuff.
spymonkey.co.uk, May 11-15, then touring, May 16-October 16
Royal Court, London
Ophelia has a terrible time in Hamlet. Abused in public by her boyfriend and driven mad, she dies in mysterious circumstances. Director Katie Mitchell, playwright Alice Birch and designer Chloe Lamford imagine Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective in this co-production with the Berlin Schaubühne.
royalcourttheatre.com, May 17-21
The Play’s the Thing
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Family-friendly exhibition about the making of Shakespeare plays, including hands-on and immersive elements.
rsc.org.uk, from June 1
The Shadow King
Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear set in the Australian outback as a traumatic, blood-soaked tale of two indigenous families torn apart by arguments over land and heritage. Malthouse Theatre fuse video, text and “dreamtime” songs in a new slant on this dark play.
barbican.org.uk, June 22-July 2
Béatrice et Bénédict / A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict is directed by Laurent Pelly (July 23-August 27) and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is directed by Peter Hall (August 11-28).
Photographs: Hugo Glendinning; Kossman Dejong; Rah Petherbridge Photography; Gianmarco Bresadola; Angus McBean