Shaking Up Shakespeare




Shaking Up Shakespeare

Toronto writers and producers Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col are trying to Kill Shakespeare in as many ways as possible.

Luckily, Conor McCreery (left) and Anthony Del Col (right) leave the vengeful, pie-baking Titus Andronicus out of Kill Shakespeare.

When certain works have been adapted, re-adapted, modernized, and satirized as often as Shakespeare’s plays have, sometimes the next step is to go back to the beginning.

That’s the point that Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col, the creators of the graphic novel Kill Shakespeare, are at. The two developed the concept almost a decade ago—Del Col with experience producing and McCreery with writing but neither with an exceptional background in the Bard. Their work pits Shakespeare’s heroes and villains against each other in a battle over their fates—fates that lie in the hands (or quill) of a mysterious and reclusive wizard named William Shakespeare, seen as either a friend or foe depending on which side you’re on.

With dramatic and dense panels by artist Andy Belanger, the story of Kill Shakespeare really came together over the past five years, weaving Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff, Iago and Othello, Lady Macbeth, Henry III, and a whole whack of fairies into an epic journey, recounted over 12 issues in total. Issue 1 was published in April of 2010 (the cover of which is pictured at right), and in the short time since, Kill Shakespeare has developed a cult following with “Bardolators” (their word) and at comic conventions alike, even including a couple cos players.

But McCreery and Del Col are salesmen at heart—even as we conduct this interview they announce “” with a bit more emphasis so that our fellow cafe-goers will hear. So it’s understandable that with the success of the comics, they would seek out more venues to tell their story. There’s a game in the works, study guides for schools and university English classes, and a screenplay they wrote in the Sundance Institute’s New Frontiers Storytelling Lab this past October. But, perhaps most fittingly, they’re returning Shakespeare’s stories to the place they were first told—the stage.

“It seemed like an inevitable next step. It’s very poetical, all of Shakespeare’s plays were originally written for the stage, then we wrote the comic, and now we’re putting it back on stage,” says Del Col. “It’s all coming full-circle.”

“A full circle that ends on Broadway,” McCreery adds, outing Del Col’s dream of hitting the neon lights of New York City. In fact, that dream might not be that far off, with big-name fans like Tom Stoppard and Julie Taymor, and a history in theatre of transforming graphic novels into plays and vice versa.

But before their version of the Bard can take on Broadway, they first had to take their pages to the stage. They worked with Soulpepper Theatre late last year in preparation for The Word Festival, a celebration of the St. James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare that took place last month. In the time in between, Soulpepper’s dramaturge Toby Malone was able to use his PhD in Shakespearean adaptation to help McCreery and Del Col restructure the story to be more stage-friendly. This process included simplifying several storylines into three main plotlines, setting up a five-act structure, adding a chorus, and enlarging the details that are obvious in a drawing but lost in live action—all while sticking to the original graphics from the books.

“I equated it to being in the editing room, you have the footage that you have, and there are no reshoots. […] But we had already started to re-adapt our tale for the film screenplay, so we’re already in the mind frame that the graphic novel is one story, and the screenplay is that story. […] We have to adapt and re-adapt and re-adapt to fit different media,” says Del Col.

All three, Del Col, McCreery, and Malone, agree that one of the hardest challenges was adopting the more traditional Shakespearean language that Malone’s expertise insisted upon—like when to use “thee” over “you” and which verbs require an “-‘st” suffix. “We don’t sweat that too much. […]But [Malone] made a good point because in the theatre, you’re more likely to come across people that are Shakespeare purists, and you don’t want to give them the excuse that the whole thing is shoddily done,” says McCreery, alluding to criticism that is already out there.

But after all was said(eth?) and done(‘st?), the first staged reading of the entire Kill Shakespeare epic took place on November 26 as a visual radio play of sorts, directed by Derek Boyes. Some of Soulpepper’s finest, including Michelle Monteith, Gregory Prest, John Jarvis, Rich Roberts, and Malone himself took to the studio space dressed in black and recited the story to the backdrop of 750 slides, while providing their own sound effects in front of a packed audience.

Hamlet not only battles Richard III, but also his inner demons. Image by Andy Belanger.

“I’m still kind of on a high from it,” says Del Col, who especially enjoyed what they call the “reverse balcony scene,” when Juliet finds herself climbing the lattice to her beloved waiting above. “Those who haven’t read the comic book, you can tell, because all of a sudden there’s this small little chuckle. And it’s like, ‘Why are they chuckl—oh, they get that it’s the balcony scene.’ We’ve been working on Kill Shakespeare for so long now, the balcony scene is one of the first scenes we came up with. So it kind of gets lost every now and again. But to hear an audience see it and chuckle at it, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I really do like that scene. That scene really is the essence of Kill Shakespeare.’ Just for that moment alone, it was worth it.”

“My only regret would be to have a larger budget, and more time for rehearsal, and even more opportunities for us to see all the different ways of telling the story,” says McCreery. “The actors were just starting to get into it to the point where they would say, ‘Wait a second, I can recreate this in any way I want.’ They didn’t really have to have their Hamlet be the regular Hamlet. And the actress who played Juliet (Monteith), she was used to a Juliet with very little agency, but our Juliet is anything but. And they know way more about the stage than we do, and a lot of them are much more accomplished storytellers than we are, so it would have been great to get more chances to pick their brains.”

Theatre companies across Canada have already expressed interest in staging Kill Shakespeare again, so it’s likely that McCreery’s dream will be fulfilled, one midsummer night. In the meantime, Del Col and McCreery are exploring all their options. As opposed to Shakespeare himself, who kept his stories strictly on the stage, they say they’re tied to the tale, not the form.

“The point is not to get people to read the graphic novel as [much as] it is to find a way to tell the story,” says McCreery. “Different mediums tell different stories, so to try to tell the same one through all these different mediums is a sort of folly. Some people will see an action-adventure movie, and won’t go to the stage. Some are going to read a graphic novel, if that’s their thing.”