To BEER or not to BEER?

A review of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) playing in Nemzeti Színház.

When seeing the title SÖR in a list of theatrical plays somewhere between Waiting for Godot and The Phantom of the Opera, one’s eyes most probably lighten up immediately in the hope of encountering something fresh, easy and funny (the word ‘sör’ meaning beer in Hungarian). And The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) – translated Shakespeare Összes Rövidítve (SÖR) – gives the eager theatregoer exactly that.

This extraordinary abbreviation in itself implies an entertaining piece, but it becomes much more exciting when you learn that the play is in fact a parody of “Will I am Shaky Spear’s” oeuvre. It attempts to condense all 37 of the bard’s dramas (and half a sonnet!) into less than two hours, performed in English by three actors playing all roles, regardless of gender or age.

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Written by the American Reduced Shakespeare Company, the piece was first presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1987, and later became a record-breaking show in various parts of Europe. It reached Hungary with the foundation of Madhouse Theatre Company in 2000. Actors Matt Devere, Mike Kelly and Andrew Hefler tailored their own version of the original under the direction of László Magács, and have been playing to full houses in Budapest ever since – that is, for more than ten seasons now.

It is by no accident; the whole thing is HILARIOUS. Buying a ticket for this show does not only mean an interactive experience, but also two hours of laughing so hard you can’t help yourself giggling aloud in the street weeks after going to the theatre. At the beginning of the play, the actors, dressed in identical clothes, explain to the audience what they’ll be trying to do in the next hours: they will perform all of Shakespeare’s plays in a shortened version, using nothing but a set of props and clothes. They start with a mockery of Romeo and Juliet with Matt appearing in a beautiful wig and a lady’s dress (portraying the Capulet girl, of course), so that you realise right away how completely frivolous and frantic the play will be. This first scene is kind of a warm-up to the other  wacky interpretations yet to come: here we get nice, slow dialogues with lots of quotations from the original script, so that the confiding audience will cherish the hope that they would get at least a little bit of the real texts that they can recognise.

However, this is not at all the case. In the course of the play we can see Othello staged as a rap song, all the histories disguised as a football match, Macbeth performed in tartan kilts accompanied by highly exaggerated Scottish accents and what not. The whole rendering is extremely fast, which brings us to the only drawback of the play, if we can call it a drawback at all: since it is so compressed and full of switches between different characters, sometimes it gets quite hard to understand for non-native English speakers. It is not essential to catch every single word in order to enjoy the show incredibly, but if you want to get the details as well, you have to be a really good speaker of the language (and really in control of your own laughter).

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After the intermission, by what time we already know that the second act will consist mainly of the coverage of Hamlet, we can meet many “new” characters in several smartly designed gowns and dresses – this play, obviously, deserves the longest, richest parody and the most elaborate setting. No surprise: it is weird. Ophelia, clearly a lunatic, sings George Gershwin’s 1935 song “Summertime” with a speech impediment; king Claudius with his eccentric laugh keeps throwing up in front of the first seats; and the audience is invited to take part of the show by imitating the sound of the wind in the night.

So, if you want to experience something equally professional, bizarre, and entertaining, SÖR, currently on in the National Theatre, is without doubt a great choice for you to relax and have a great and unforgettable time. “…the rest is silence.”

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