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Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare - Richard II and Henry IV, Part I (Pit, Barbican)

Michael Coveney returns to the Barbican for another look at Forced Entertainment's unique take on the Bard

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Jerry Killick
© Hugo Glendinning

I was rude about the first batch of Forced Entertainment's low-key Shakespeare project but warmed slightly to the second, re-visiting the dismal Pit for Terry O'Connor's sad-faced run-through – with beer bottles and household aids on a bare kitchen table – of Richard II, and then Jerry Killick's ebullient resumé of Henry IV, Part One, the eponymous monarch played by a bottle of toilet cleaner.

Both actors are standing outside of the plays, relishing the narrative and marshalling their inanimate midget charges like Gulliver in Lilliput. O'Connor has John of Gaunt as a candle-holder, the usurper Bolingbroke as a bolshie bottle of Ballantine's whisky; Killick's Prince Hal is a prissy mini-sculpture resembling an Hispanic Eucharist holder (the sun god, or sherry advert?), his opinion-dividing warlord, Douglas, a jar of Marmite.

I began to get the point, but then it seeped away again as Falstaff tottered on all too predictably as an enamelled brandy bottle and Mistress Quickly waddled on as a bag of sugar. I then started to ponder: does this make any sense at all to people who don't know the plays; and, for those who do, doesn't it all seem somehow inadequate?

The paraphrasing in Richard II is almost witty if you know the play ("Let's tell sad stories about how kings die") but not funny enough if you don't. This whole table-top nonsense was initiated on these same Barbican premises by Ken Campbell as part of the Tantalus project in 2001 – table-top tragedies with two actors in ten-minute miniature epics; a comedy riot, apparently – but there's something over-reverent and worthy about the Forced Ent project; it's not outlandish or violent enough to serve as an alternative riposte to the RSC or the Globe and their pompous 37-play tournaments.

Still, I remain vaguely intrigued by O'Connor's slant on Richard II: Queen Isabella, an elegant perfume bottle, gets her full due, Bolingbroke's the hero, Richard a hypocritical canting saint (great emphasis on hoping Gaunt dies so we can fund the Irish wars); and Killick does a battle of Shrewsbury with a brouhaha of bottles isolating the final showdown between Hal and Hotspur.

In Richard, O'Connor scores heavily with her "sceptre'd isle" speech paraphrase about the landlord king now running a chicken farm. And I liked Killick's evocation of the testy Glendower, though I think director Tim Etchells misses a trick in not representing the rebel Worcester ("saucy Worcester" in Beyond the Fringe) with a bottle of Lea and Perrin's.

Read Michael Coveney's review of Table Top Shakespeare - Romeo & Juliet and King John here

Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare runs at the Pit, Barbican Centre until 6 March.