Tim Crouch
(© Amelia Dowd)

So in The Complete Deaths Spymonkey stage all 74 of the Shakespeare's deaths?

It's actually 75. Marcus Andronicus kills a fly in Titus Andronicus and we're doing that too.

So how long is each death?

Well the show runs at around two hours – not including the interval, so that's 120 divided by 75, which is about one and a half minutes per death. But sometimes we do loads quite quickly and quite conceptually and then we linger on some. We linger on Cinna the Poet from Julius Caesar. And we linger on Richard III a bit. Although it's not really lingering, it's quite aggressive. We linger quite a lot of Pyramus and Thisbe and we do the end of Hamlet fairly straight although someone is dressed as an inflatable clown, and someone is dressed in spandex.

Was this your idea?
Yes, it was mine. Spymonkey originally came to me and said they wanted to do some Shakespeare. But silly comedy versions of Shakespeare plays are all over the place. I had the idea to place a morbid filter on all of his plays and just takes the deaths out. I had seen this famous puppet show years ago in Vancouver called Famous Puppet Death Scenes – by a company called Old Trout Puppet Workshop, so I think probably that was in my subconscious.

How did you know there are 75 deaths?
I had to go through, that was my job as adaptor and director, I had to sieve out the deaths. Fillet the deaths.

So is there a kind of narrative? Or do you just dive in?
There is a narrative. Spymonkey are a clown company that formed in 1998. But each of the four Spymonkey actors have their own clown characters. Toby is the straight man, he's the pedagogue: a bit pompous and arrogant. Then there's Petra, Aitor and Stephan who is totally off the wall. So in The Complete Deaths Toby is trying to take the company into a serious contemporary performance vein. He says at one point ‘Welcome to the performance collective formerly known as Spymonkey'. But basically the others decide to sack him and stage a bubble show. Somewhere in the midst of all that they realise that they have to work together.

Spymonkey's The Complete Deaths
Spymonkey's The Complete Deaths
© Victor Frankowski

So do you do all the deaths as they are done in Shakespeare?
No. We have a butoh version of 14 deaths, there's a ridiculous version of Cleopatra and lots of other versions. To some degree we are playing fast and loose: it's not an academic exercise. There is a nice collision of clown and high culture.

How will people know which death is which?
At the side of the stage there is an elderly lady who is death and she presses a button every time there is a death. Then there's an LED counter which shows the title of the play and the name of the character and there is a counter and the number goes down from 75 to 0.

Is the intention to have fun?
I'm not coming at it in a pedagogic way, to try and illuminate the nature of death in Shakespeare's plays, because that's not what Spymonkey do. But, having said that, there is plenty of Shakespeare in this play. It's the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and I felt the way death is treated in Shakespeare feels quite contemporary. At the time of us planning this project a lot of people were being beheaded in Syria and the media news reports showed death being used as political problem solving. That's kind of Shakespearean. In Shakespeare's plays there isn't democratic process, they are not about voting: leaders are either killed or kill themselves. So there are little flavours of those things.

Do you have favourite deaths?
I have to say, partly because I have written and performed a piece about him, but Cinna the Poet's death is a favourite of mine in Shakespeare. Julius Caesar would be a very different play if Cinna the Poet's death was not in it. He suddenly inverts the focus of the play from great leaders and rhetoric to a little fella who happens to be a poet - even more genius on Shakespeare's part - who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. I also think the fly is great: Titus Andronicus gets angry when his brother kills one because the fly could be innocent and his wife and children could be missing him. There's an irony to it. Any death that forces an audience to see things through a different lens I think is great. And the deaths in Titus –can I say they are great fun? They are grand guignol and are fantastically excessive.

The Complete Deaths runs from 17 to 18 May at Mayfest in Bristol and then tours the UK.