A highly entertaining and educational hop, skip and jump through the Bard’s life and lines, The Ruff Guide to Shakespeare is a clean and polished performance from Take Thou That. A hint of Horrible Histories but not on the nose.
Attempting to compass not only Shakespeare’s plays themselves, but also the wealth of theories surrounding the minimal facts about his life and the cultural context in which he operated, The Ruff Guide steals conceits from other parodic reductions such as the work of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and Spy Monkey (to name a couple). A two minute version of the plot of Hamlet is performed and other plays are quoted throughout. We play a game of constructing Shakespearian insults (a game widely available in Stratford-Upon-Avon gift shops) and other educational Shakespearian literature. A sure-fire way of interesting the kids! However, the show is also very careful to get its facts straight, a ‘klaxon of uncertainty’ is used to highlight any statements that are not supported by strong evidence (i.e. most of our assumptions about Shakespeare’s life).
“Fun and educational but risk free”
Tying the production together is Jaques’ famous seven ages of man speech from As You Like It. The seven ages are transposed onto the life of William Shakespeare running through his probable birthday and schooling, through the missing years towards his time in London and as a wealthy man of Stratford. I appreciated this as perhaps the most novel of the conceits used in this production.
Not that anything was poorly executed. Quite the contrary, a quick-fire run down of all the deaths in a few of the plays was particularly well done, a testament to the cohesion of this ensemble. The songs and final jig are harmonious and precise. All this production is missing is a hint of the raucous, the unexpected, a plot twist. There are a few sweet glimpses of this in inventive use of staging. Perhaps I am the wrong person to be reviewing this show, perhaps I know the plays too well, but I was eager for a sense that anything could happen, an uncertainty that makes theatre exciting to watch.
Totally idolatrous and overly reverent, The Ruff Guide is fun and educational but risk free and in need of an injection of danger to bring to life the vibrancy of Shakespeare’s plays and the chaos of early modern theatre.
The Ruff Guide to Shakespeare has now finished its run at Assembly George Square but will be returning to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2020.
Image: Take Thou That