One of the most unique and conceptually interesting theatre shows that I have seen at the Bus Stop Theatre is Kill Shakespeare created by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col, two Toronto-based multidisciplinary artists, presented in conjunction with Hal-Con, Lions Den Theatre and Vile Passeist Theatre in Halifax. The show is an adaptation of a twelve issue comic series written by McCreery and Del Col with art by Andy Belanger performed by a company of actors from Lions Den and Vile Passeist’s combined ensembles in the style of a radio play.
The actors sit in chairs with their scripts, reading their lines from music stands and using their voices as the primary mechanisms of bringing each character to life. They also provide sound effects, as in a radio play, while others are constructed using a variety of props, including coconuts for clopping horse hooves. At the same time, the artwork from the comic series is projected on a screen behind the actors, which turns the performance into a sort of fragmented cartoon where the “animation” and sense of propelled action only comes from the cutting from one slide to the next. Tessa Pekeles does a fantastic job of keeping the momentum of hundreds of slides consistent What makes this sort of performance work so well is that Andy Belanger’s artwork is beautiful, intricate, and has the ability to transport the audience (an audience increasingly conditioned to expect explosive special effects) into this entirely two dimensional world. The drawings capture so much animation innately that it becomes easy for our imaginations to make the leap toward movement that the slide show construction doesn’t allow for.
It is also interesting as an audience member to be given the opportunity to divide attention between watching the cartoon world where the story lives and also the faces and body language of the actors who give it life, whose work in similar mediums is often deliberately hidden. I found myself alternating in rapid succession between observing the performances of the actors and watching the drawings as though the words were coming from them. It was interesting to see how the drawings informed the way I viewed the actors and the actors’ voices informed the way I viewed the comics. There were some wonderful voice performances in this production, especially from Pasha Ebrahimi who really captured the sense of the comic genre of heroes and villains. His Richard III was reminiscent of a perpetually livid King Triton from The Little Mermaid, while his Othello channeled The Hulk.
The story that McCreery and Del Col have created is an epic one, throwing a multitude of Shakespearean characters into an adventure story which sees each of their individual stories crisscross as the writers continually pit them against one another and against the Bard himself. I absolutely love this idea, I love that here these characters exist in a sort of fairy tale world all together and that they have become mythical cartoon characters on quests for power, glory and revenge. I think that Shakespeare’s canon lends itself very well to this conceit and that McCreery and Del Col have brought this story to life with an obvious encyclopedic knowledge of their source material and manage to weave fun allusions to the various texts extensively throughout the play. The biggest challenge for this piece is Shakespeare’s iconic characters, who are so multi-layered and complex, so rooted in intricate subtext and subtlety, it is difficult for them to make the transition into comic book heroes and villains without losing much of what makes them so fascinating and distinctive.
Iago, for example, whose cunning villainy is shrewd and meticulously (and I would argue deliciously) evil throughout Othello is rendered dull in his feigned redemption and inept under the thumb of Richard and the others. Hamlet becomes the Romeo-esque romantic male lead and one wonders what happened to his paralyzing self-doubt, intense depression and his signature inability to act. Juliet is given a much more interesting story line as the leader of the rebels, but her relationship with Hamlet lacks all the stakes that made her liaison with Romeo so compelling. I love the idea of Richard III and Lady Macbeth joining forces with one another, but there is so much untapped potential here for mammoth personality clashes, brutal backstabbing and betrayal and psychological chaos. Instead of enhancing one another’s strange idiosyncrasies the combination of all of these colossal personalities seem to dilute one another.
Another challenge here is the characters’ relationships with William Shakespeare, who is presented as a sort of Aslan character. The lack of clarity here could be that this story has been adapted from twelve full-length comic books into a two hour play, but the inconsistencies at the play’s culmination do impact the potential power of the piece. Shakespeare is presented as being a miserable alcoholic who wants nothing to do with his creations or their plight, but it is unclear why he feels this way. If Shakespeare is living in his own contemporary time, he is a moderately successful playwright/actor with little reason to suggest a hatred of himself or of his creations. If Shakespeare exists here in a mythical sense, able to consider his own impact on the theatre history and literary culture of future generations, there is even less obvious reason for his melancholy. The characters seem to be searching for a happily ever after and seeking revenge on Shakespeare for writing conflict into their lives, which is a fascinating idea that suggests our own relationship with the concept of “God” and the ideas of self-determination versus fatalism. However, this angle is never deeply explored and instead we seem to be left with the far less interesting or persuasive argument that Shakespeare should have written stories devoid of conflict as to appease his characters. Yet, where would that leave his plays and where does that leave his audience?
There is so much in Kill Shakespeare that is not only conceptually interesting, but also expertly achieved that the potential for this show to be a powerful and brilliant homage that does justice to the Shakespearean canon is certainly palpable. There is likely much more in the comic that we haven’t seen, so I encourage McCreery and Del Col to keep mining deeper and to embrace every opportunity to thwart their characters with conflict and complication at every turn, as it will only enrich the audience’s investment to their beautiful comic book world.
Kill Shakespeare closed their production in Halifax on November 4th, but McCreery and Del Col continue to tour their show to festivals around the world. For more information please visit their website.