Leo Owen managed to catch-up with Gary Fanning and Matt Pearson of The Reduced Shakespeare Company during their UK tour ahead of their scheduled Leeds stop at the City Varieties Music Hall
The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (abridged) is obviously designed to have a wider appeal than the plays it takes its inspiration from, making it accessible for Shakespeare fans and relative newcomers to his work. As part of the company, is it necessary to be a fan of The Bard’s work and have a working knowledge of his plays?
Matt Pearson: I don’t have a good knowledge of every single one of his plays, but for the ones we cover in more detail, like Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet, it certainly pays to have a working knowledge of the plot and the cultural aura surrounding the play so you know what you’re parodying and reducing. All of our reductions are done with love and affection towards the Bard – we want to make his work accessible because we love it so much.
Gary Fanning: You so don’t have to be a fan! If you are though, there are lots and lots of references for the Shakespearian scholars out there. Likewise, if you know nothing about Shakespeare, this is a great way of getting into him. Shakespeare is often put on this ridiculously tall pedestal and held up as something that you have to study in order to understand – this just isn’t true. In their day, the plays were performed for both royalty but also the groundlings who would not have been educated. So, within the actual plays themselves there are enough jokes for the masses and we’re just carrying that on – we take big, scary topics and cut out all the boring bits and just get straight to the sex and the killing!
What do you like best about being on tour?
Matt Pearson: The best thing is it sort of feels like you’re on holiday with your mates. Also you can pretend you’re a rock star travelling around in a tour bus with lots of groupies – if only we had groupies.
Gary Fanning: The best thing about touring is getting to see all the great, wet and soggy places around this beautiful island. There are so many beautiful theatres here too with great histories. The hardest thing is obviously not being in your own bed – it’s always odd waking up in somebody else’s bed.
Do you have a favourite place you secretly hope the tour will visit?
Matt Pearson: I’ve always wanted to play Wembley Stadium – maybe next tour…
What is the greatest challenge you face as an individual performer in being part of the RSC?
Matt Pearson: The most essential thing is a sense of fun and lots of energy. The biggest challenge I suppose is manufacturing that energy when you’re a bit tired, but we usually have amazing audiences who generate that buzz and keep you going.
Is there anything that you view as essential for a successful performance?
Gary Fanning: My knees! If you’ve seen us before you know how fast-paced these shows are and how we run around, throwing on costumes and grabbing props. It’s a mad show and physically it takes a lot of energy – our converse high-tops don’t have a lot of support!
You’ve performed all over the world, do you find UK audiences respond differently, and perhaps get more of the Shakespearean in-jokes?
Gary Fanning: I think that British audiences are pretty quick so the Shakespeare show always goes down really well here in the UK. They also love watching dumb Americans getting things wrong, especially something quintessentially English like Shakespeare.
The RSC is a big company, how do you decide who will tour? Do you have simultaneous productions going on in different countries?
Gary Fanning: At RSC HQ in the states there is a big raffle machine. All our names are put in and whoever comes out is it – it’s very high-tech!
Matt Pearson: The RSC has eight different shows in its repertoire now, and usually two or three of them are going at any one time. There are a pool of actors both here and in the States who perform the shows, some of whom get to go across the pond once in a while. It’s all about who knows which role in which show, and who’s available.
Is the show fairly rigid in its structure, being predominantly written by a few company members or is there a lot of scope to ad-lib?
Matt Pearson: It’s fairly tightly-scripted, but there is some scope for ad-libs, which is essential for when the audience throw unexpected stuff at us (sometimes literally). We made a few updates in the rehearsals for this tour, again to make sure it feels fresh. I’m particularly proud of a line I contributed dissing The X Factor. One of the great things about this company is nobody is too precious about authorship – if something is funny and it works, it stays in.
How much has The Complete Works changed since it was first performed in 1987?
Gary Fanning: There are a few places where we can throw things in. The beauty of this show is that it’s been developed over the years from actually performing it in front of audiences. The things that are now scripted at one point were born from a sort of improv. Of course, if there is something topical or current we can try to add it.
Matt Pearson: There are some references to the Internet and mobile phones etc, but just so it feels a bit more contemporary. There are no changes for the sake of it – it’s just about keeping it fresh and funny.
Parts of the production feel quite traditional – is this a happy accident or a conscious decision? How faithful are show writers trying to remain to the Elizabethan theatre experience?
Matt Pearson: Well there are nods towards Elizabethan theatre with some of the costumes and the props, but ours are very much contemporary interpretations. In order to make our reductions work, we sometimes have to use modern short-cuts, for example, Titus Andronicus works very well in the style of a TV cooking programme. Having said that, all the female parts are played by a boy, as in Shakespeare’s day, but that’s only because we couldn’t find a girl who was willing to come on tour with us!
In after-show feedback, have you noticed any patterns in audience demographic and how people respond to the production?
Matt Pearson: We have such a mixed demographic – truly, people of all ages and backgrounds seem to enjoy it. The educated laugh at the Shakespeare jokes, the non-educated laugh at the slapstick and rude bits, the kids laugh at the silly wigs and costumes, and the older people laugh at how stupid the younger generation are.
The show is extremely interactive, requiring a lot of audience participation, have you ever performed it to an audience that just didn’t get it?
Matt Pearson: Almost always people are fantastic sports. We never do anything insulting or degrading. It’s all to help us achieve our ludicrous mission of doing the Complete Works so we’re all on the same team. Occasionally, you do get people who don’t want to come up, but in that case you just move onto the next person! Generally we try and avoid bringing people people onstage who are too heavily inebriated – that’s never pretty.
Watching you on stage looks like enormous fun, what do you most enjoy about being part of the RSC?
Gary Fanning: Getting to play with the audience. Almost every other show you have to pretend there is a ‘4th wall’. We don’t have that, we treat the audience like the 4th cast member!
Matt Pearson: It is enormous fun. The best thing is getting that reaction from an audience every night. Making people laugh long and hard for a couple of hours a day is the most rewarding thing I can imagine.
Abbreviated, the Reduced Shakespeare Company obviously shares the same acronym as the Royal Shakespeare Company, was this intentional?
Matt Pearson: I don’t know, you’d have to ask them.
Gary Fanning: What?! There’s another RSC?? That’s it, we’re suing them!!
What’s next for the RSC? Are there any plans to reduce anything else?
Matt Pearson: I think the Shakespeare show will always be the repertoire, and will always provide a template for the many huge, boring, lofty subjects which would benefit hugely from the RSC treatment. I believe Austin and Reed, who write the shows, are working on a Complete History of Comedy (Abridged) which should reach these shores at some point. Personally, I’d love to see the Complete History of Britain get the Reduced effect.
For details of company tour dates, visit: