Bard purists might want to brace themselves before watching The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised].
The popular show, performed by The Reduced Shakespeare Company, offers one irreverent rollercoaster ride through all 37 plays in 97 minutes.
London’s longest-running comedy, which enjoyed nine years at the Criterion Theatre, is heading for the Ardingly ArtsFest on Wednesday, June 25 (8pm).
Cast member William Meredith reckons the show’s enduring appeal is down to Shakespeare’s colossal presence in the literary world.
The Arkansas-born actor, speaking with a pleasant southern twang, explains: “When you take any huge subject, like Shakespeare or the Bible or the other things we’ve produced, it’s easy to make jokes, just because it’s subject matter that a lot of people know about.
“Everybody knows about Hamlet, everybody knows about Romeo and Juliet.”
The show’s high energy charm is winning over new audiences, but it seems that people who have already experienced the play’s comic chaos keep coming back for more.
“You’re going to get something new out of it every time,” William states, when I ask what draws audiences back. “The shows are really like living organisms because they change from night to night. We like to throw in local references or maybe national news headlines – about politics or something like that – so it’s always going to have a fresh feel to it.”
William also feels the pace of the show plays a large part in its appeal.
“Nobody can keep up with the thing,” he says. “You’re going to hear some jokes you didn’t pick up on last time and that’s the brilliant thing about it.
“We may tell jokes that are as old as Moses’s toes and twice as corny, but the thing is: you’re picking up that punch line, we’re moving on to the next joke. We don’t give you a chance to catch your breath.”
It’s a fun job, but the show’s speed throws up a lot of challenges, especially when three performers play all the parts.
William laughs: “What we’ve often said is that, really, there are two shows going on at the same time. There’s the show everyone sees onstage and then there’s the absolute madness backstage, which involves the three of us running back and forth with props flying around, desperately trying to get into the next costume.”
He continues: “You could turn the stage 90 degrees and see two different shows that are probably equally entertaining. We’ve actually considered that – filming a documentary of the tour process, because I think that would be really interesting to see and I think a lot of fans would like to see that.”
I ask about William’s personal comedy influences.
“I always liked a lot of the stand-ups when I was growing up”, he says. “One of my favourites was Gallagher. I don’t know if he made it over here...”
An image suddenly pops into my head. “Oh, something about...watermelons?” I ask.
The line crackles as William starts laughing. “That’s so funny that you know that,” he says. “Yeah, that was always his big finale with the Sledge-O-Matic. He’d come out with a giant sledgehammer and he’d smash things and there would always be a watermelon.
“Several of the front rows would come in wearing raincoats and macks,” he continues. “As a matter of fact, when we toured with The Bible (another RSC favourite) earlier this year... I can’t remember which theatre it was, but, just before we started doing the audience participation bit about Noah’s Ark we noticed that several of the people in the front rows had brought raincoats.”
He laughs: “Because we had these giant squirt guns that we’d use to represent the flood. I thought that was so wonderful because that reminded me of Gallagher. It really made it feel special to me.”
Comedy isn’t William’s only skill. He’s appeared in some serious films, including Green Zone and 28 Weeks Later.
“I was in the US Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division,” he explains. “So, I did a lot of these roles because of my military training. In 28 weeks Later I was a soldier. In Green Zone I was talking about disbanding the Iraqi army and all that kind of stuff.”
He continues: “I think a lot of people that haven’t seen me do the RSC stuff don’t realise the other side of me, you know? I quite like to be a clown.”
So, what attracted William to the acting profession in the first place?
“Well I grew up in Arkansas, in the south-east corner of the state where there’s absolutely nothing,” he says. “Unless you’re working for the paper mill there’s pretty much nothing going on there.”
He explains that when the video boom hit in the ’80s everyone had a VCR and rental stores started opening up. Without a community theatre or nearby cinema, William discovered a new world to immerse himself in.
“I spent pretty much every cent of my allowance on renting movies,” he says. “I got so engrossed in all the different types of stories and just said: ‘This is what I want to do. I want to tell stories.’”
Audience members may find themselves sharing the storytelling experience in the Shakespeare show, as the trio invite people onstage to perform with them.
“It would be greatly missed if a show came out and there wasn’t an audience participation bit,” says William. “There isn’t a fourth wall with our shows. The audience is very much involved.”
He explains: “It’s the kind of dynamic as if we were in the living room with a group of friends doing some sketches. I think that’s what makes it so approachable. We usually finish off the show with going out into the foyer and saying hello to everyone, hearing their thoughts and maybe signing the odd autograph here and there to make us feel special.”
Speaking of special, I ask if there has ever been a time when the audience participation went extraordinarily well. One moment stands out in William’s memory, but whether it went well is up for debate.
“I remember on the last Bible tour we made the mistake of getting a couple of people up to represent the gorillas,” William says. “Not realising that they were incredibly drunk.
“So, we spent the majority of the audience participation bit wrangling them and keeping them from wandering too far backstage.
“But, you know, whatever makes the audience laugh, that’s fine. We’ll work with it.”
Tickets: £15/£7.50. Call 0844 8700 8877 or visit www.ardingly.com.