A starfield backdrop. A grand piano. Five glamorous stools, black leather and shiny metal. Five performers, two women, three men. A sense of style. Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Revue is a heady cocktail built on all of these elements. Gleeful, erudite and passionate, it reminds you of the all-pervading nature of Shakespeare’s prodigious output and underlines the joy his plays and players continuously bring to the world.
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare.
As this extract from Bernard Levin’s wonderful Quoting Shakespeare demonstrates, the simple truth is that the Bard from Stratford upon Avon has had an indelible and enduring effect on world language and culture.
This is not just about the nitty gritty of his plays or the startling beauty of his sonnets, its about how the notion of Shakespeare, as the epitome of theatrical genius and the master of evocative language, is unbeatable in terms of influence, accessibility and shared understanding. Often people are influenced by Shakespeare without even realising it (Levin’s point). Artists of all kind have drawn on Shakespeare for inspiration and starting points. Like oxygen and sunshine, Shakespeare is all around us, everywhere.
Revues are a rare theatrical treat these days. In their heyday, in the period between the First and Second World Wars, Revues were big business and big deals. A relation of Music Hall entertainment, Revues usually involved different acts but always centred on music, dancing and comic sketches. They were bright, bubbly entertainment. Perhaps inevitably, with the advent of television, Revues morphed into televised variety shows.
In the latter part of the 20th Century, there was a revival of kinds in the fortunes of Revues and there were great Revues written and performed about the oeuvre of particular composers, writers and performers. Side By Side By Sondheim, As The World Goes Round, Cowardy Custard, It’s A Grand Night For Singing and Jerry’s Girls are all well known examples.
In 1994, the Royal Shakespeare Company first performed The Shakespeare Revue, a witty and delightful confection devised by Christopher Luscombe and Malcolm McKee. Its success was immediate and in 1995 the production entered the RSC repertoire, playing at the Barbican and then the Vaudeville Theatre. Drawing on existing material from an eclectic range of creatives but also commissioning new pieces, The Shakespeare Revue was itself an ode to Shakespeare, classy and classical.
Now touring the UK is a new production of The Shakespeare Revue, directed by co-deviser Malcolm McKee, with musical direction from Oli Jackson and choreography from Nicola Keen (who recreates Jenny Arnold’s original work). It’s terrifically entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, with delicious comic performances, brisk, smooth dancing and first-rate harmonies. It leaves you feeling warm and joyful – and marvelling at the way Shakespeare can inspire and delight almost anyone anywhere.
The young cast instantly dispels any notion that this might be a fusty “worthy” night in the theatre. Something about the simple fact that a majority of the performers are under 40 adds a frisson – everything seems fresh, occasionally naughty. The material sparkles in the mouths of performers untrammelled by tradition or convention. Every effort is expended in making Shakespeare the butt of excellent jokes; but there is nothing disrespectful. Indeed, the very best moments come out of a deep respect for Shakespeare’s plays and players tempered by a wily ingenuity, dripping in style.
These performances are not cynical – they are celebratory.
One of the best things about this production is that the performers all proceed on the basis that the audience will get the jokes. There is no over elaborate context provided, no textual references are explained. Diction is at a premium, as is emphasis and timing, with the result that everything, even well known passages, burst with vigour and energy. If you know your Shakespeare well, you will have deep pleasures in store; if you are only vaguely acquainted with Shakespeare, you will be surprised how much this show makes sense to you, precisely because of the ubiquitous quality of Shakespeare’s writings.
Alex Morgan, dashing and nimble on his feet, has a superb stage presence and a genial clownish side which comes into its own several times. His voice is bright and tuneful, set high, well supported and, critically, musically appropriate. Versatile and nifty, he adapts effortlessly for the dictates of the material. In Monty Python’s The Man Who Speaks In Anagrams, Morgan is breathlessly straight, carefully underplaying the absurdity for maximum effect. “Be ot or bot ne ot, tath is the nestquoi” was perfection.
Another highlight involving Morgan was the marvellous Wherefore Art Thou, Juliet? where, enhanced by a ludicrous blonde page-boy wig, Morgan attempts the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet in a tired repertory company where his co-star mistakenly thinks she is appearing as Lady Macbeth. The fear and affronted horror in Morgan’s eyes is very funny, juxstaposed against the tired enthusiasm of Anna Stolli’s Lady Macbeth’s urgings about the murder of Duncan or dark spot permanence. Whether you appreciate the sketch or not, you wont forget Morgan in that wig.
Lizzie Bea brings a beautiful, shimmering voice to proceedings as well as a highly developed “naughtiness”. Her energy is high, her work is precise and crisp, even when she is engaged in encouraging the audience to sing along to a tune full of words which they enjoy singing because they feel as naughty as she appears by joining in. It is hard to recall a time when an audience sniggered so much of their own use of the word “count”.
A curiously unshaven Alex Scott Fairley nailed the “posh Shakespearean actor” stereotype bringing humour of a kind entirely different to the work of his fellow performers. He has a rich, high baritone sound which he put to excellent use throughout the evening. It is true that Fairley and Stolli could relax more, adopt the slightly carefree nonchalance of the other members of the company, but really that is a quibble.
Although there is no lead role in The Shakespeare Revue, and despite the fact that the entire company works well together, with no trace of disaffection or competition, producing work of enormous vocal beauty and intense charm, there is no disputing that Jordan Lee Davies stands out. There is an indefinable elegance, a twinkling insouciance which pervades everything he does and makes it his.
Perhaps the best example of this is his delicious delivery of Victoria Wood’s famous Giving Notes (immortalised by Julie Walters). There is no attempt to recreate Walter’s success; Davies nails the comic potential in his own confident style. Another example comes when he retells an anecdote about Sir Robert Helpmann applying make-up under a light bulb, standing atop a table, in the umpires’ dressing room in a large American football stadium. Its genuinely hysterical.
Davies is an excellent dancer and a formidable singer – he can belt, croon and indulge in bel canto as the occasion demands. Most impressively, he works beautifully with his co-stars, and brings out the best in each of them.
There are so many great numbers, but the best of them include The Music Hall Shakespeare, The Heroine The Opera House Forgot, In Shakespeare’s Day and Will Power.
Literally, The Shakespeare Revue has something for everyone and proves that while all the world’s a stage, Shakespeare is everywhere in that world. And there is nothing merely about these players.