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The School of Night
Published on Sunday, 14 August 2011

4 stars

Gilded Balloon Teviot (venue website)
4-18 Aug, 5:15pm-6:25pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

Have you ever watched Pericles?  Can you list half a dozen of the Canterbury Tales?  Is your video - and this is truly definitive - set for Only Connect on BBC4?  If you tick at least one of those boxes, you might well enjoy the unashamedly intellectual games played at The School of Night - which aims to compose a "lost Shakespeare play" on the fly and in full Iambic pentameter, based entirely on suggestions and inspirations shouted out by the audience.

For my visit, the undiscovered masterpiece involved a wayward young prince who - led astray by his feckless gambling comrades - displeased his father, the king. It all resulted in inevitable banishment from the kingdom, to the wastes of (ahem) Antarctica.  If you skip over that final detail, it's actually a pretty credible Bardic plot, and a lot of the entertainment at the School of Night lies in gently pointing out just how crazy some of Shakespeare's genuine scenes can be.  The "bawdy", in particular - the opening scene for the improvised play - is a glorious mix of the high-faultin' and the absurd, which will please anyone who's ever scratched their head over the ramblings of the likes of the Drunken Porter.

The self-styled "goader of the Rhapsodes" (the play's director, in other words) is there to help things along, though he buts in a little too often for my taste. Many of his interventions are inspired, such as when he challenged an actor for some off-the-cuff dialogue involving eight different euphemisms for "prostitute", but sometimes I found him a little over-eager to mess with scenes which were already going pretty well.  The most impressive moments of all came when one of the four actors had the spotlight to themselves; the soliloquies they came up with wouldn't have seemed out of place in the Folio... provided, of course, you disregarded all the references to penguins.

If there's one major thing I'd change, it's the extended warm-up which precedes the play. During this lengthy opening section, I felt the performers' obvious erudition tended to run away with itself; I'll forgive them the fake Chaucer, but performing a scene in French went just a little bit too far. On another level, too, this segment was filled with standard improv games, which you can see played extensively (and to be honest, better) at any number of shows across the city at this time of year. They could easily cut ten minutes of this, bring the running time down to the standard Fringe hour, and have a tighter, better-focussed production as a result.

But keep the faith; the Fakespeare is coming, and when it comes, it's very good indeed. So put down that much-thumbed copy of Proust, and turn off the panel game on Radio 4; the thinking man or woman's entertainment is to be found in the Gilded Balloon. But make haste - this is a short run, and there are just a few shows left to enjoy.

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