The Bard has taken many avatars over the years; his works have been transformed into films, paintings, ballets, cartoons, video games, action figures, and even a series of feminist fan fiction YouTube videos (featuring the character “Your Sassy Gay Friend”). They have been abridged, adapted, transmuted, invoked, and translated into numerous languages, forums, and contextual spheres. And yet, I’m not sure Shakespeare’s famous corpus has ever before taken on the proportions of Forced Entertainment’s (In)Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare, hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in late February, in which plays are recounted using ordinary kitchen objects and condiments: candlesticks, lotion bottles, aerosol cans, honey pots, bug sprays, vases, and more. Merchant of Venice’s Antonio becomes a towering bottle of limoncello while Portia is a slim vial of rosewater; Macbeth’s witches are small balls of twine with a jelly jar for Lady Macbeth; and As You Like It’s Touchstone is rendered a can of Heinz beans with the shepherd girl Audrey as a suggestive and comic bottle of Veet.
This series of performance art pieces was conceived by Forced Entertainment, a group based out of Sheffield, England. Comprised of six artists who, together, negotiate and explore “what theater and performance can mean in contemporary life,” the company has produced gallery installations, books, photographic collections, videos, a magic show, and even a bus tour, and now, their own original take on Shakespeare.
The (In)Complete Works (an abridged version of the Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare which debuted in Berlin) presents twelve plays in thirty-five to forty-five minute segments over three nights. Employing only a bare tabletop, each artist intimately and variously presents, recounts, and enacts a different play, manipulating the kitchen objects to trace the movements of the characters. As Artistic Director Tim Etchells explains, the table is “at once the how-to space of so many Internet tutorials and, at the same time, a distant cousin of the ‘wooden O’ invoked by Shakespeare in Henry V” (and indeed, the event is transmitted live over the Internet as it is taking place at the MCA). The effect produces an unusual amalgamation of storytelling with puppets, acting via condiment, and football-esque play sheets that offer a blow-by-blow account of each work.
Forced Entertainment describes the performances as efforts to explore “the dynamic force of narrative and storytelling with the use of language alone.” And indeed, in the small, darkened theater, featuring only the bare table and the actor-narrator-storyteller, the familiar plays are transformed into entirely new stories. The famous lines, the characterizations, critical history, theatrical dramatics, sets, and actors are all stripped away as the story is mediated by a single artist in a casual, accessible, colloquial, conversational, often comedic, and improvisational manner. In one moment, Claire Marshall retelling Merchant of Venice, interacts with the object-characters – exchanging knowing glances with a candlestick Bassanio – and in another moment, she is the character – rolling her eyes in place of the friends that scoff at Bassanio’s gamble on Portia and Belmont. The nuances of each play shift and morph in the mouths of their narrators; the tales become less Shakespeare’s and more the narrator’s own, aligned with her/his own personal identifications, interests, sympathies, and narrative license. Antonio presides over Marshall’s Merchant of Venice, towering over all of the other objects; he becomes, in this version, a lonely, isolated figure, physically at the center of the play and yet always on the periphery of the action. The retelling begins with him staring longingly and melancholic-ly upon the sea, and ends the same way, concluding with a comment on his sad part in the world, as bittersweet as the limoncello that constitutes him. This narrative is (or evolves into) one more invested in Antonio’s – and by extension, all of our own — existential isolation than it is about the poor treatment of Shylock, Portia’s proto-feminist heroism, or Bassanio and Antonio’s exceptional friendship. Similarly, Robin Arthur’s As You Like It cast with an olive oil bottle Oliver and a Dove lotion Rosalind transforms the homoerotic and suggestive romance and Rosalind’s masterful manipulations into the unctuously hilarious infatuation of giddy teenagers.
Etchells explains of the project that, “What we’re doing is like taking the engine out of the car [that is Shakespeare] and putting all the little bits on the ground and then assembling it in order. There’s something analytic about it, slightly dispassionate.” And yet, at the same time, I’d like to suggest that there’s something incredibly compelling about the way these accounts take the tales that are integrally part of our cultural consciousness and refashion these stories into intimate conversations. As bare bones as these stories become when compared to the Shakespearean playtext, they remain unbelievably rich, nuanced, and animated. The “unpromising machinery of the tabletop stirs something deep, through which the stories gain a kind of traction”: the objects begin to take on personalities and characteristics that prove a testament to the strength of the connection forged between artist and audience. In this day of the now, the new, the viral, these performances remind us how extraordinarily captivating, dynamic, enduring, and nostalgic the practice of simple storytelling can be, even with the tales we have seen countless times before.
Raashi Rastogi recently completed her doctoral work in English at Northwestern University. She studies and teaches Shakespeare and the literature of the English Renaissance with an emphasis on classical reception, gender and sexualities studies, and history of the book and media theory. She also holds an MA in English literature from Northwestern University and a BA in English literature and International Relations from the University of Virginia.