SOPHIA CHETIN-LEUNER reviews performances from ‘Shakespeare Shuffled’ at the Greenwich Theatre.

Two years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe I made the mistake of seeing only two out of three productions of ‘Titus Andronicus’. I may have missed the best one, which was performed by an all-female Shakespearean company who go by the name of Smooth Faced Gentlemen. James Haddrell, artistic director of the Greenwich Theatre, did not make my mistake. Impressed with their ability to portray some of Shakespeare’s most masculine roles, he invited them to his theatre and the result is the rather brilliant ‘Shakespeare Shuffled’. The premise of the evening is to gather four London based theatre companies, who specialise in performing Shakespearean plays, and to have each troupe perform a different act of ‘Macbeth’ in whichever way they choose.

With less than 16% of Shakespeare’s characters being women who are given only 6% of his lines, Smooth Faced Gentlemen address this disparity head on. More recent theatre productions, such as Phyllida Lloyd’s at the Donmar Warehouse, employ all-female casts in order to counter this deficiency in female representation. Smooth Faced Gentlemen similarly tackle this inequality in gender, directly contravening the prohibition of women performing on the Elizabethan stage of Shakespeare’s day. Although Smooth Faced Gentlemen were, therefore, the main selling point of Shakespeare Shuffled, they were not the only stars.

'Titus Andronicus'
‘Titus Andronicus’

Opening the evening was The HandleBards. The audience was warmed up by their farcical Act 1: a Ken doll Macbeth (Tom Dixon) teamed with three energetic male witches, who cleverly doubled up as other roles too. Just as the audience was howling with laughter, The Merely Players had the tough task of following twenty minutes of raucousness with a tense scene between Macbeth and his wife in Act 2. The company prides itself on performing Shakespeare with no set, props or costume so that the audience instead focus on the language. However, this ideology was undermined by the anachronism of seeing Shakespeare performed in modern, everyday clothing. The result was a failure to shift the tone from farce to funereal.

Smooth Faced Gentlemen were given the best act of the play: murder by torch light and ghosts at the dinner table! They didn’t disappoint. The strong opening, with Banquo (Stella Taylor) fencing against the audience, was reminiscent of the final scene of Hamlet, succeeding in a tonal shift that The Merely Players had failed to achieve. Smooth Faced Gentleman’s talented ensemble proved that women are just as capable at performing these ‘masculine’ roles.

The HandleBards

The fourth act was a tad anti-climactic. The Permanently Bard’s performance felt confused; caught somewhere in between the humour of The HandleBards and the sparseness of The Merely Players. Their costumes were a clumsy mix of low-budget Elizabethan doublet and hose with Clarks’ brogues. Sadly, the company were unconvincing in their portrayal of Macduff’s distress upon hearing the news of his wife and child’s murder, and lacked the sadness required in the delivery of the moving line: ‘He has no children.’

The fifth and final act was performed by an amalgamation of the companies. The final act confronted the question I had been thinking throughout the play: does confusing ‘Macbeth’s’ tone and style produce good theatre? The chaotic amalgamation of the four companies proves it does. Farce collided with linguistic purity and was held firmly together by the tour-de-force that was Henri Merriam, from The Smooth Faced Gentlemen, as Macbeth. Her ability to silence the audience’s laughter with her gruff, androgynous lisp, and to change the tone in a single word, provided a deft portrayal of Shakespeare’s tragic hero. Yet, it was because of the contrast in characterisation, especially between Merriam’s Macbeth and Paul Moss’ camp Lady Macbeth, that the night did not take itself too seriously.

As artistic director Ashlea Kaye said: ‘We’ll be performing in totally different ways and people can decide which they like best. The important thing is getting Shakespeare out there.’ With the range of interpretations and performances on offer, I’d be surprised if anyone left that theatre without some newfound appreciation of Shakespeare.

I strongly recommend catching The HandleBards at the Vault Festival (18th-22 of February) and the Smooth Faced Gentleman’s revival of ‘Titus Andronicus’ at the Greenwich Theatre (27 April – 2 May).

Images attributed to Daniel Harris and Peculius respectively.