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Rap & laugh at Bard’s expense

Mumbai, Jan. 27: Hamlet is performed forwards, backwards and sideways, Titus Andronicus is a cookery show and Othello does the rap, and all Shakespeare’s works are packed into one outrageous evening.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), the longest-running comedy at London’s West End, will land in town this week, before going on to tour other Indian cities, including Calcutta.

The performance, a 97-minute roller-coaster ride through all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays and the sonnets, has left some purists a-shudder and audiences all over the world howling with laughter.

“I promise you a magical theatrical experience or your money back,” says Phil Bathols, the tonsured, soft-spoken, devout Buddhist, the producer of The Complete Works.

The show, after romping through New York, London, Sydney and Singapore, features Sydney-based actors Ezra Bix and brothers Berynn and Tim Schwerdt who have also done the rounds around the globe with the play.

Dressed in velvet doublets and ill-fitting wigs, Berynn is the somewhat pompous Shakespeare expert, Tim the enthusiastic innocent who keeps messing things up and Bix the mediator.

The three present the gruesome tragedy of Titus Andronicus as a cannibalistic cooking show. An adrenaline-awash Romeo finds his overtures to Juliet thwarted and the balcony scene leads to the observation: “That which we call a nose by any other name would smell.”

There are three brief versions of Hamlet. There is a Freudian analysis of Ophelia, during which the audience is divided into her id, ego and superego. This is followed by a 3-second Hamlet that comprises the cast running around the stage shouting “To be or not to be”. Then a backward version is presented: “Be to not or be to.”

The play was scripted and originally performed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, an American answer to the original RSC, England’s own Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1981. But it started touring the world soon after its inception, featured at the Edinburgh Festival and won the prestigious Olivier Award.

Since 1996, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has been performing the play in the Bard’s own country, in London’s West End, to make it the longest-running comedy there.

The play’s enormous popularity puts it on the Indian tour. The idea of the play, says the people behind it, is not to make a joke out of Shakespeare, but use his enormous universal appeal to make a very funny performance.

Says Bathols: “India seems to have become a sort of magic destination for rock bands. From Elton John to Shakespeare is quite a jump, I guess. But I think this is the first time a currently running West End hit production is coming to India and we are very excited to be performing in this incredible country.

“Shakespeare has this mysterious, almost visceral appeal to audiences all over the world. It’s funny how most people perceive it as highbrow, intellectual stuff…but it’s not,” he adds.

His show was performed in Singapore last year to sellout houses for 21 shows, he says. “I’m not crazy about Bollywood cinema but from my limited experience, I know that people here love good plays.”

The India leg of the show’s tour will span 31 performances across six cities, including Calcutta, starting from January 28 and winding up on March 3, 2003.

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