Freely adapted from Is Shakespeare Dead? by Mark Twain, Les Antliaclastes’ Here Lies Shakespeare bills itself as a comic tragedy comprising prologue, three short satirical stories, and an epilogue, based on themes surrounding the continually raging Shakespeare authorship debate. Which was interesting, as I for one didn’t spot any of that. What I did see were some of the most beautiful puppets I’ve seen in years. The sheer craftsmanship of the puppets, set, props and overall design of the show was breathtaking. Like a beautifully animated film, you could have frozen any moment and it would have revealed an aesthetically stunning tableaux.
The show itself is difficult to describe, there was no narrative to speak of, just a series of dream like sequences loosely based around Shakespeare, but frequently veering into the completely surreal. The set was based around two deep holes. The first was horizontal, with the stage screened off to create a tightly focused circular aperture through which we viewed most of the action. This tunnel-like space seemed to extend into infinity back stage, like a huge black hole. Yet within this playing space there was also a vertical hole leading down through mud and soil to create a space into, and out of, which various puppets could appear and descend: at various times conjuring images of an archaeological dig, an open grave or just a vegetable plot full of potatoes.
The puppets themselves were works of art. By far and away the high point of the show. Beautifully crafted from actual skeletons and animal parts, they looked both macabre and lifelike, grotesque and oh-so-real. Sadly the quality of the puppeteering didn’t quite live up to the quality of the puppets themselves. It wasn’t bad, but it lacked the precision we’ve become used to in London during the puppetry renaissance we’ve witnessed over the last decade. That said, the quality of the puppets, the visual design and the sound design together was strong enough to create a believable and immersive world of the show, which is half the battle won. My complain however, is that having created that world, they then didn’t do anything with it.
I am going to go out on a limb here, I know a lot of my friends in continental theatre will and do disagree with me, but theatre is a narrative form. Its function is above all else to tell a story. Beautiful design, clever images, outstanding soundscapes and exquisite lighting are all fantastic, if and only if, they help move a story forwards. I am more than happy to sit and watch a beautiful image for a minute or so, but after 10 minutes, unless I’ve met a character I care about, whose journey I’m invested in, I’m bored. Drama is created by seeing a character we feel connected to, go through a situation that has the capacity to change them and therefore change us. Here Lies Shakespeare was a collection of beautiful tableaus and some clever ideas, but it never came close to being able to move me.
That isn’t to say some of the tableaus weren’t interesting. For me the stand out moment was seeing a headless decaying cadaver, nailed to a cross and hung with the lifelike head of Shakespeare, being worshipped by a dodo sitting on top of a model of the Globe theatre working a very busy cash register, while a huge cash cow is milked in the background surrounded by miniature shopping trollies; before the cow, in a moment of scatalogical delight, starts shitting on them copiously. Did I mention the show was quite surreal? But it was a beautiful visual metaphor for the Shakespeare industry and how it’s the antithesis of creativity and art, as Emma Rice found out to her cost. But sadly, like the rest of the show, it was never anything more than that. A clever idea that failed to touch me on an emotional, human or physical level. Instead the show remained abstract, intellectual and ultimately dead.
I would recommend seeing Here Lies Shakespeare, if for no other reason than the beautiful design and puppet making that’s on display. Ultimately, however, I couldn’t help feeling that I spent 75minutes watching a collection of beautiful puppets, and the talented people who made them, staring into a big black hole hoping to find a purpose for them to be on stage.
See Here Lies Shakespeare at Jacksons Lane: Wed 11 – Sun 15 Jan 2017, Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. After-show discussion: Sat 14 Jan 2017
Les Antliaclastes (France)
Patrick Sims: Direction, design, puppets, performer
Josephine Biereye: Masks, costumes, puppets
Richard Penny: Design, puppets, performer
Josephine Biereye and Patrick Sims: Puppets and masks
Camille Lamy: Costumes
Oriol Vilodomiu & Karinne Dumont: Sound creation, design
Nicolas Hubert: Design, performer
Jesse Philip Watson: Design, performer
Raùl Berrueco: Video creation
Olivier Francfort & Sophie Barraud: Lighting creation
Sophie Barraud: Stage management
Performed by: Patrick Sims, Richard Penny, Nicolas Hubert, Jesse Philip Watson