The Bible: The Complete Word of God
Matt Rippy of the Reduced Shakespeare Company on touring their abridged production to Newtownabbey
When and where did the Reduced Shakespeare Company start out?
We started as a pass the hat act. Street theatre, really, at Renaissance fairs in America. They're a peculiarly American phenomenon, an excuse for yanks to gather in a forest somewhere, dress up in ye olde outfits, drink mead out of pewter tankards and eat turkey legs. Everyone puts on terrible Dick Van Dyke English accents.
We were doing performances of Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet, little bijou bits of Shakespeare, and our success grew until we found ourselves not performing on dirt surrounded by people on bails of hay but in proper theatres with seats and lighting. We've tried to keep that original sense of immediacy. Today, you'll find that the audience generally ends up on stage with us.
Now here we are, 30-odd years later, with nine stage shows to our name. We've performed in 18 countries, at the White House, for royalty in the Middle east, in shopping malls and national theatres. Inexplicably, there is still a demand. I guess there's no accounting for taste.
You've written and produced several shows, which you regularly tour around the world. Tell us about some of your most successful titles.
We have a whole menu of treats. Obviously there's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), our first minimalist opus. Then we have The Complete History of America (abridged), The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) and more. We've reduced Hollywood, the millennium into a musical, and all the great books that you should've read but probably haven't.
At the minute, we're working on a new show, The Complete History of Comedy (abridged), which just premiered in the States to rave reviews. So as long as there are big issues that need reducing into short, sharp comedies, then we'll all still be employed.
Is there an element of improvisation in what you do?
We are a theatre company, and our shows are scripted, but we certainly have room for maneuver, because every night you have a different audience, so the show is different. There is always an element of improv in theatre.
You're bringing The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) to Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey from January 29-30. What should people expect of the show?
The Bible is one of my favourite productions. It's everything that the Reduced Shakespeare Company is about. It was a huge task, taking this massive book and reducing it into a two-hour show. But you get it all. We cover the Old Testament in the first act and the New Testament in the second, basically from fig leaves to final judgement.
It's also, I think, a bit of a public service. If you know your Bible, then excellent. We will hopefully cover all of your favourite bits, like a greatest hits cover band: the violence and the bloodshed of the Old Testament, and the loving and forgiving God in the New. But lets face it, there are entire swathes that are really quite difficult to get through.
Take the generations of Adam, for example. Have you tried to read that? 'Adam begat Cane, begat Enoch and begat Jered; Meshech, Methuselah and still he wasn't tired...' You could read that section for six hours and still have a lot of begating to get through, so we reduced it into a beautiful little song with three-part harmony. It's educational.
Is it all fun and games, or does it get serious at any point?
We try to answer some of the major theological questions. I mean, the Bible poses a lot of them. In fact, the word 'theological' itself is an oxymoron. 'Theo' means 'God', and belief in God is based on faith, while logic – the 'logical' part of the word – is based on reason. So technically, the word theology is an oxymoron. Just like David Cameron... Oh no, sorry, he's just a moron.
You're iminent arrival has made headlines in Northern Ireland after a certain individual decried the production as mocking a 'sacred' text. How would you respond to that charge?
Apparently there are a few people in Northern Ireland who find the idea of putting on a comedy show based on the Bible to be upsetting. I'm very sorry to hear that. I welcome people of all faiths to come and see our show. We've performed it throughout the world. We've had Sister Mary Walsh from the Arlington Express give us a quote: 'It's wacky, it's zany and a little profany.' And I think she's exactly right. We're basically trying to put the fun back into fundamentalism. But it comes from a good place in our hearts.
As with all of our shows, we choose them because we love the source material. When we came to England to do The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), people said, 'How dare you take our British institution, a cultural icon, and knock him off his pedestal?' And we said, 'Well, it's only because we love him that we pull his pigtails.' And I think our love of the Bible shows in our performance. It really is a celebration of the Bible. I would encourage everyone to come and see that it's about joy and celebration.
On the other hand, if you have never read the Bible, or never gone to church, hopefully you will also come away with a little bit more information, and maybe it'll send you back to the Bible. You might be surprised when you find that the Bible doesn't contain as many jokes as our show, but that's no reason to be put off. Our show is for people of all faiths and no faith. I'm a lapsed episcopalian myself, but each one of our company believes in something.
How important are the arts with relation to freedom of speech?
The importance of the arts and freedom of speech... We could probably write an entire show based on that concept, because we're famous for taking long boring issues and making them into bit-sized comedy productions. But in short, we look at the theatre as a safe place and a playground.
When you're inside, the doors are closed and the lights are out, you go on a journey. You can cover ground that maybe you're uncomfortable talking about at work or with your family. And when you leave, hopefully you will have learned something new about the human condition. And if the theatre is not your cup of tea, then by all means, stay at home and watch television.
Finally, are you looking forward to visiting Northern Ireland?
The company has been in Northern Ireland on many occasions over the years, and yet I've missed it each time. So I'm looking forward to it. I know you can't promise me sunshine, but I hear you have good beer and that your audiences are wild and often behave like animals, which is perfect, because there are hundreds of animals on Noah's Ark, and apparently it rains there a lot, so we're going to need all the help we can get.
The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) runs in Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, from January 29-30.