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Table Top Shakespeare

Sheffield troupe Forced Entertainment has taken on the mammoth task of re-telling all 36 Shakespeare plays from their homes. Sceptical? Don’t be.

Tabletop shakespeare

Macbeth performed by Richard Lowdon.

Forced Entertainment

A salt and pepper pot for the king and queen. A vase for the prince. A matchbox for the servant. A toilet roll tube for the innkeeper. A water bottle for the messenger. A kitchen table for a stage.

In Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare: At Home, the six members of Forced Entertainment re-tell all 36 Shakespeare plays from their homes using household objects as stand-ins for the characters.

The idea was originally conceived in 2015, but when the group’s touring and performing was stopped in March they decided to fulfil the project. The Complete Works are currently being shown over a nine-week period and will be available to watch until the end of November.

Led by Artistic Director, Tim Etchells, the six actors of Forced Entertainment have been creating and performing together for over 35 years. Based in Sheffield, they are well-known around the world, touring both in the UK and internationally. They also work with young people to develop creative skills and performance.

The principles and values laid out in their website talk about “demanding a lot of the audience,” and how the theatre they create “needs to be live… and generate energy and tension from its presence in a room with other people.” I wondered how the actors found the process of re-telling these age-old stories, sitting by themselves in their kitchens and talking to a camera. Could it possibly work?

Yes, it really does. In their skilled hands, the plays are a joy to watch, a total experience.

The performers each perform six plays. Richard Lowden told me that the rehearsal process was unusually solitary, getting to know the play, then telling and re-telling it with one other member until the story was clear and the play was “boiled down to its narrative essence.”

“One of the great pleasures of the project… was to see people working on plays that you knew nothing about… and seeing all these stories together and watching how things cross over from one play to another: witches, rings that are exchanged, murderers who always come in pairs, people in disguise and the endless arrival of messengers!”

In a video about the project, Tim Etchells points out that the “comical collision between the bland, household objects and the rather grand, special stories (is) at the heart of the play”. It’s the objects that draw you in, just as the actors on a stage might. As they enter the scene, there is a moment, a question raised: ‘Ha, Macbeth is linseed oil, Banquo wood oil. Why?’ There is no time to try to answer. As the story moves on, the objects take on their character. Without a live audience the storyteller relates to the objects, imbuing the inanimate items with feelings and sharing their story in a gentle and protective manner.

Richard says: “As a storyteller, to look at a bottle of beer and tell you, the audience, that it is sad, creates a strange kind of friction, where the audience superimposes the feelings onto the object. In that sense the audience is doing a lot of active work while watching, given that the bottles can't do much on their own.

“This is where a lot of the fun and poignancy lies. Our job is to try and make the story happen here and now on the table – to make you laugh, cry and think, much like one would do in a theatre. It's just a smaller scale. Little epics.”

There is something special, poignant and intimate about the storytelling here; mini epics unfolding, inanimate everyday objects becoming, possessing human responses and feelings, held together by the light touch of an experienced stage actor. These stories are re-told in a way that is accessible to all whilst remaining true to their fundamental nature.

This collection is the best theatre I have seen made during lockdown. The company remains true to their principles of engaging and challenging the audience and examining the link between form and content. The simplicity and art of storytelling is exploited. I felt as though the story was being told to me and for me, from their home to mine.

In this crazy world, with complicated problems and messy answers, someone sitting down to tell me a story felt like an act of kindness.

Art and kindness – two essential components of any pandemic survival kit.

Learn more

Live broadcasts of Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare: At Home run until 15 November. All the plays will be available to watch until 30 November, free of charge.

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