Although the work of William Shakespeare was written around four centuries ago, his uncanny ability to reflect human nature still resonates today. With his graceful use of language, he continues to show the world how we all love, hate, conspire and dream. So it’s only a small leap for the creator of Brighton’s favourite satirical show to turn his attention to the work of England’s greatest writer. “The politics of the day are riven through all of his shows,” The Treason Show’s Mark Brailsford tells me. “Just look at Henry V, it was only 100 years after Agincourt that the play was performed. So there’s this element of rousing the British spirit, referendum and all that…”
Robust and hilarious, The Treason Show has lit up venues around Brighton for 16 years with its fast-paced irreverent look at British life. “We’re still here, that’s our motto,” he jokes. Set up in June 2000, with the intention of doing one performance per month for three months, the show is now more popular than ever. To maintain relevance, all of the material is written just two weeks before performances. “Although we’ll never run out of tasty news stories, right now there are particularly rich pickings amongst Brexit and its resulting political fallout. “But how do you satirise people who are satirising themselves?” With this as a background Brailsford’s creation of the Brighton Shakespeare Company perfectly keys into the Bard’s original staging of his plays. We’re sitting in his Western Road office. It’s the day of the EU referendum, and he’s animated, well-humoured and clearly excited about further developing this new project. It seems comedy actors can add gravitas and new levels to even the most demanding of roles. “Pinter said Max Wall was one of the best interpreters of the theatre he’d ever seen. Charlie Drake even did it. Comic actors, when they go straight… Well it’s dark!” A case in question is Will Kemp, one of the original performers in the Bard’s early plays, a kind of lively Tudor cross between Stephen Fry and Oscar Wilde. “To get the language over it would have been pretty full-on,” Brailsford elaborates. “How much the audience would have heard, whilst being drunk in the pit and fornicating on the balconies, is another matter. So it was very vibrant and alive.” It all seems at odds with the more formal modern presentations of Shakespeare.
Brailsford’s Shakespearean company sprang into existence with a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor during Brighton Open Air Theatre’s opening season last summer. It was the realisation of an idea Brailsford had whilst working with the late great Ron Moody in a production of Kafka In Love. “Moody always had this dream to create a Shakespeare company with comedy actors, because they can make dramatic interpretive forms. There’s almost a different layer.” So this August he’ll be turning his attention to Much Ado About Nothing. One of the most popular comedies in the English language, this timeless piece sees two young lovers, Claudio and Hero, about to be married. But a resentful prince’s scheme looks set to thwart the impending nuptials. A wedding seems distant for Beatrice and Benedick though, as their squabbling sees no end. Yet the answers to everyone’s woes are a little more complex than at first appearance.
Once again the company returns to BOAT. Situated on Dyke Road, the amphitheatre hosts shows from May to September each year and provides a large performance space for local artists, schools and national touring productions. “What I love about BOAT is the mixture of shows and companies going in there. The atmosphere in Brighton generally is that all the venues support each other, which is really important.”
What Brighton Shakespeare Company seeks to do is develop a different emotional depth to some of the Bard’s greatest work. While our contemporary world encourages new interpretations of his writings, there’s often little need to overcomplicate everything. The stories and themes are all there already. “I’ve been called a radical for setting it in period. But it’s all valid, because Shakespeare speaks to different generations in different ways.” After a successful Kickstarter campaign, there are now plans to tour the company to places like the terraces at Rottingdean Beach. This evokes the tradition for performers to roam the country, taking their productions to wherever there was an audience. Brailsford does concede that performing theatre outside in Britain presents a certain risk. “I might have to design a concept with brollies involved,” he chuckles.
Brighton Shakespeare Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing runs at BOAT from Weds 10 – Sun 14 Aug.