REVIEW: UNDEAD BARD (Theatre N16) ★★★
Well, this was certainly a unique piece of theatre! Robert Crighton’s self-performed one-man show is a play of two halves, exploring the afterlife of William Shakespeare in all of its pantomime and woes.
The first half, ‘The Shakespeare Delusion’, provoked laughter from the audience within seconds, continuing at this comedic pace throughout. Professor Ashborn, an endearing yet overwhelmingly eccentric academic, lectures to us as if we were his students about the hypocrisies of Shakespeare’s work: the alleged lies, corruption and cover-ups. He professes Shakespeare to be a false God in the history books of literary icons, and implores us to see through our cultural obsession with a man who is nothing less than, in Ashborn’s eyes, a charlatan. As the action progresses we delight in seeing Crighton’s character embrace his eccentricity, covering the stage in brilliantly amusing notes on A4 paper, his clothing becoming wilder and his manner severely disgruntled. Comic interjections about his private life are slotted in with his passionately described ‘evidence’ against Shakespeare, bringing several famous names into the mix to validate his views. We are given several points of reference to feast on as an audience, and numerous amusing historical references mixed in with modern musings. A brilliantly ‘meaty’ first half with a wealth of brilliantly written and passionately performed content.
The second half, titled ‘Shakespeare: The Ever Living!’ was unfortunately nowhere near as accessible. We are brought back to the action to meet Professor Ashborn once again, however there has been a stark change in demeanour and format: the entire second half is performed with a microphone and backing music, making the show feel a bit like a game show. I found the backing music (which changed from pop to instrumental pieces) quite unnecessary and very distracting, and the harsh reverberation of the mic mixed with it largely took away from parts of what I believe was another well-written script. A short time into the second half and I noticed other members of the audience were mirroring my dissatisfaction somewhat; this new version of Ashborn’s character had lost his previous connection with us, perhaps because the storyline was much harder to follow this time and translated as various extended ramblings rather than something we could truly connect with. I feel like this half would have been so much better if the microphone and music had just been ditched – this is a playwright who can really write, and in this case the effects took away from that.
Despite it being rather disconcerting, it contained the occasional moment of greatness reminiscent of the first half, such as an alarmingly outrageous spanking session (good call with the audience engagement) and a very intriguing ending involving a pie… Overall, I felt that the second half was like the inadequate twin of an excellent first. I am still struggling to understand how there was such a lack of cohesion between the two pieces, as ultimately they could have connected very well. The running time was a little too long – 45 minutes for the first half and a further 50 for the second, and this could certainly be shorter.
Crighton himself is a superb actor with a strong stage presence, confident at delivering comedy. He has chosen to focus on a matter that every member of society who has sat through English Literature classes has thought: why do we adore Shakespeare to such a strong degree?
I don’t doubt Crighton’s artistic vision; he has a unique viewpoint on the infamous playwright, excellent performance skills and some real side-splitting comedy. However, there are several elements to the second half that need to be addressed if Crighton wishes to progress ‘Undead Bard’ forward to its full potential.
Reviewed by Laura Evans
UNDEAD BARD plays at Theatre N16 until 13 October 2016