Lend me your ear: The Vanguard’s William Shakespeare’s Reservoir Dogs

It has been often said that Shakespeare, with Titus Andronicus, had a Tarantino phase, but did Tarantino have a Shakespeare phase? This production, presented by Russall S. Beattie and playing for four (k)nights at Newtown’s The Vanguard, sets out to test this hypothesis, and the result is nothing short of outrageously enjoyable, sitting somewhere between parody, homage, and an Elizabethan revenge thriller. Written and directed by Steven Hopley, it does not seek to replicate Tarantino’s film on stage (as with Strictly Ballroom The Musical), but instead renders Tarantino’s screenplay into iambic pentameter, featuring many subtle quotations of Shakespeare’s own words, clever assimilations of Elizabethan blank verse, as well as three Elizabethanised pop songs, sung by Key William, the in-house bard.
The story, as in Tarantino’s film, remain intact, so too do the ‘Dogs,’ styled here as bandit knights, perfect strangers to one another, hired to rob a casket of precious jewels from a coach on its way to the King. When their heist is thwarted, it becomes apparent that one of them must be an officer in disguise. The six knights – Sirs Blue, Orange, Brown, Blonde, Pink, and White – are here a motley collection of swaggering fellows, clad in leather doublet jackets, breeches, and boots, wearing daggers at their belts, with temperaments as roguish as their deeds. Along with Lord Joseph, Pleasant-Fellow Edward, Holdaway and an Officer, Hopley expertly adapts Tarantino’s chamber-ensemble into a sweaty and heady concoction of revenge, best served cold.

The cast here are all terrific, and while there is often a temptation to overplay scenes towards a certain theatrical campness, in other words a parody of Tarantino’s blood-soaked word-drunk style, Hopley never lets the dogs off the leash for too long, and it’s not hard to see the cast having an absolute ball out there. Richard Hilliar spends much of his time on the ground as Sir Orange, both in flashback and in the present, but also enacts a memorable rendition of his story-swatting scene with Jerry Retford as Holdaway providing Hamlet’s advice to the players – “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue…” Chris Miller, as Sir White, has a Nick Cave-like swagger to him, and exudes a cool and bravado which perhaps conceals the fact his character is perhaps flying by the seat of his pants much of the time. Leof Kingsford-Smith’s Lord Joseph is by turns menacing and genial, and you’re never sure how he’s going to react to a situation. Anthony Campanella’s Pleasant-Fellow Edward, resplendent in crimson doublet-and-hose, has a glorious moment when he sees Sir Orange unconscious on the ground, a soliloquy which rivals anything Hamlet himself delivered. There’s an undisguised menace and sadistic glee in Lukasz Embart’s Sir Blonde, there for all to see when he cuts Sir Blue’s (Patrick Magee) ear off, and holds it aloft, proclaiming “Lend me your ear!” Diego Armelo’s Sir Pink is perhaps the one who seems to be most noticeably acting but he, too, is having a ball so it doesn’t really distract from the effect. And Dominic Santangelo, as Key William, providing live accompaniment to the action on a ukulele (as well as the obligatory cross-dressing scene) is a brilliant touch, as are the Elizabethanised lyrics, still (incredibly) set to their original tunes.
The Vanguard here is well suited to the production, a bit like an Elizabethan indoor theatre, albeit with the audience’s positions inverted: at the front, the ‘rich’ dinner-eating folk, while upstairs on the mezzanine gallery, the ‘groundlings’ laugh, cheer and applaud heartily and with gusto, appreciating the in-jokes and sly nods with which Hopley peppers his adaptation. It is, in many respects, the closest I’ve ever been to the atmosphere of being in one of Shakespeare’s theatres circa 1594 when Titus Andronicus was first played; there’s a robust sense of fun, an audacity and an outrageousness which makes the very concept just work simply because it is so ridiculous and almost too well-thought-out. My only quibble is the visible lack of stage blood, the bright crimson lifeblood which seems to bubble underneath the surface of every Tarantino film, but it’s a quibble forgotten as soon as the “title-shot” is enacted, complete with music.
The stage here, albeit tiny, is perfectly – appropriately – Shakespearean. There is no set to speak of, save a rock and a tree, with only chairs, a barrel (of eisel, we guess), and a chest brought on to supplement it. What we have are ‘Shakespeare’s’ words c/- Hopley, and they are magnificent, resplendent, clever, and witty, and do not feel forced or shoehorned into the scenes or situations at all; if anything, it makes the scenes come alive with a verve missing in Tarantino’s original. Sure, the insane drive, delight, and audacity of the low-budget film (now theatre) are still here, but Tarantino’s words seem to grate and cut across the action; in Hopley’s adaptation, the words enhance the action, transport it into a state of word-drunk lofty grandeur and elevate the violent into a state of intoxicating transcendence. The opening scene, whereby the dogs discuss the Madonna’s song ‘Like A Virgin’, is a perfect example of this, and the rest of the play only gets better. It also seems to feature every line Shakespeare wrote about dogs – ‘cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,’ (followed by a chorus of ‘Dogs! Dogs! Dogs! Dogs!’) being perhaps the best, along with ‘that cat will mew and [the] dogs will have [their] day’ – yet it never feels gratuitous or too clever; after all, Tarantino is a master of subtle references, as was Shakespeare in his own day.
Once the cast lie on the ground, felled, a body count more significant than at the end of Hamlet, the lights dim and Key William returns to sing his version of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Coconut,’ joined by the rest of the cast before too long. It’s slightly cheesy, but so it is in Tarantino’s film, and if nothing else, it guarantees you leave the theatre with a grin on your face wide enough to keep you bouncing for days to come. If it were created under another’s hands, you might condemn it as an “improbable (pulp) fiction,” but under Hopley’s steady hand and eye, it is gloriously, full-bloodedly Shakespearean. What more could you ask for to celebrate four-hundred-and-fifty years’ worth of Bardly brilliance?

Theatre playlist: 24. Battle Without Honour or Humanity, Tomoyasu Hotei

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