Cambridge Experimental Theatre was an avant-garde theatre group founded by Richard Spaul in 1980, based at the Covent Garden Drama Centre and Studio. The company toured throughout Europe during the 1980s and frequently appeared at the Edinburgh Festival.

“…in the case of Cambridge Experimental Theatre, which toured Europe in the 1970s and 1980s performing Shakespeare with casts as small as two, the small size became part of an interpretative model (so that, for instance, Macbeth became a play about evil possession, performed only by Macbeth and a witch, while their four-actor Hamlet was a study in the dis-solution of the concept of the essentialist character)…”

The Cambridge Companion To Shakespeare Onstage

Notable productions

Dracula

Dr. Faustus (1981)

Macbeth (1982)

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Riddles Court
17 August – 11 September 1983
Director: Richard Spaul
Cast: Tim Pemberton, Becky Simpson, Richard Fredman

Othello (1983)

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The Circuit
22 August – 10 September 1983
Director: Richard Spaul
Cast: Richard Fredman, Di King, Judith  Philips, Tim Pemberton

1917

Cast: Tricia Hitchcock, Melanie Revil, Alan Wilson, Richard Spaul

The ingenious and inventive Cambridge Experimental Theatre, purveyors of mini-cast Shakespearean tragedy, 90-minute histories of civilisation, and creative adaptations of classic novels, now turn their attention to historical documentary. 1917 or Admiral Dubasov Takes a Bath is a four-person enactment of the causes, conduct and betrayal of the October Revolution from the accession of Nicholas II to Stalin’s show trials of the late 1930s.

Two young men and two girls in drab olive overalls and bare feet do it all, with marvellous mime, minimal props, powerful personalities and versatility of technique. A couple of toy telephones and an increasingly hysterical girl recreate Kerensky’s eviction from the Winter Palace. Three people edging forward their reversed chairs constitute an irresistibly advancing army. Red paint flung at a diminishingly white screen represents the increasing momentum of the purges.

Three people make a crowd. Adaptations of film techniques – montage, melt, wipe – carry the narrative at breakneck speed. Silly hats and grimaces personalise Stalin’s over-willing victims, contrasting with a singing of the Internationale that brings tears to one’s eyes.

The cast of Tricia Hitchcock, Melanie Revil, Alan Wilson, Richard Spaul researched it, Mr Spaul wrote it, they all directed it. It is didactic; often tendentious; but real theatre.

Michael Grosvenor Myer, The Guardian, 3 December 1984

The Tempest

Sound design: Amber Priestley

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1986)

Monday, 10 – Tuesday, 11 March 1986
Kleines Theater, Salzburg

Wednesday, 2 July 1986
Théâtre Belluard Bollwerk

“Les 14 rôles de la comédie de Shakespeare sont interprétés par les 5 membres du Cambridge Experimental Theatre dans une version hésitant entre la sex-comédie et l’apologie poétique de l’amour et de l’amitié, “Le Songe d’une Nuit d’Eté”. Un décor d’un strict minimum et une durée (record) ramenée à moins de deux heures, le tout à la sauce du véritable humour anglais – un songe auquel même Shakespeare n’aurait pas pensé.”

Hamlet (1987)

Director: Roland Kenyon

From British Universities Film and Video Council:

“Cambridge Experimental Theatre’s Hamlet, adapted for the stage by Roland Kenyon, challenges the entrenched notions of naturalism, sanctity of text, one-man-one-part and the tragic male hero, in a production which combines a rigorous re-evaluation of Shakespeare’s text with the theatricality and spectacle of oriental theatre. A cast of four whisper, chant, dance and wrestle their way through the pre-occupations of a constantly shifting and fragmenting central character, providing a frightening commentary on the instability of the human personality.

This production, which disturbed and fascinated audiences throughout Britain and Europe during its 1985 tour, is presented here in a version reconceived for video, which uses the medium to extend and heighten the discontintuitues and ambiguities which are located at the centre of the production.”

“Theater on Video: ‘Hamlet.’” Shakespeare on Film Newsletter, vol. 12, no. 1, 1987, pp. 10–10. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44711747.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) was directly inspired by Stoppard’s Fifteen Minute Hamlet and started as a four-person half-hour Hamlet…

In its mockery of modern fake Freudian acting theory and its search for a relevant Shakespeare it is a superbly comic parody of the difficulties posed by Shakespeare in current American acting training and in contemporary American culture. It also has intriguing resonances with the radical experiment of a four-person Hamlet developed by Cambridge Experimental Theatre in a 1987 production and the subsequent video Making Shakespeare, a production that sought to investigate concepts of subjectivity by refusing to allocate roles to particular performers: any and every actor played each ‘‘character’’ as the performance opened out the text as a collage of voices, denying narrative and creating non-linear theatre.

Highly theorized and, for all its brilliance as performance, hardly popular culture, the CET Hamlet was a theatrical exploration of critical anxiety about the political complicities of conventional Shakespeare representation…

Peter Holland, The Cambridge Companion To Shakespeare And Popular Culture, Cambridge University Press 2007, Edited by Robert Shaughnessy, pp. 41-42

King Lear (1987)

Monday, 23 March 1987
Kleines Theater, Salzburg

9 – 30 August 1987
Edinburgh Festival 1987: Theatre ACT
Director: Roland Kenyon
Cast: Richard Spaul, Sara Waite, Clare Watson

Faustus (1990)

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Marco’s Leisure Centre

Marlowe’s original Renaissance text is stripped is stripped bare of superfluities and left as a haunting, atmospheric study of psychological torture. The two man company reaches boldly into fathomed depths of dramatic intensity.

Chris Sculthorpe conveys Faustus’s intellectual conceit with the perfect degree of pathos while Richard Spaul dazzles as Mephistophilis and a multitude of metaphysical spirits. His portrayal of the Seven Deadly Sins proves both hilarious and harrowing as he taunts Faustus, peppering him with the books which wash across the stage; the sea of knowledge in which the scholar has drowned.

The Cambridge Experimental Theatre continues to challenge with innovative, provocative and above all entertaining theatre. (Mark Willis)

The List, 24 August 1990, Issue 129, p.37, https://archive.list.co.uk/the-list/1990-08-24/39/

Richard III (1991)

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Tic Toc at Marco’s Leisure Centre
12 August – 31 August 1983
Director: Richard Spaul
Cast: Richard Spaul, Chris Sculthorpe, Brigid Zengeni

The performers of an excellent Faustus last year have not disappointed with their version of Richard III, a compelling exploration of that same exploration of that same Faustian territory – one man’s losing battle with his God.

Drawing inspiration from the circus and the silent movie, Cambridge Experimental Theatre presents Richard’s rise and fall as a grimly comic parade, in which the characters revolve as if on some sinister merry-go-round. Turning the wheel is Richard himself, a delightfully endearing rogue whose clowning commands admiration even while he plots the deaths of his opponents.

By using the limited space and their one prop to its full potential, the company creates superb illusion, while the choice of music fully offsets the sense of spectacle. This is a production which cannot be faulted and deserves to be seen. Shakespeare made enjoyable and accessible by one of the best companies on the Fringe. (Aaron Hicklin.)

The List, 29 August 1991, Issue 156, p.31, https://archive.list.co.uk/the-list/1991-08-23/33/

Macbeth (1991)

Thursday, 7 – Saturday, 9 November 1991
Innsbrucker Kellertheater

Pour Out My Heart Like Water (1996)

Performers

Matt Ray Brown

Ian Bruno

Richard Fredman

Tricia Hitchcock

Debbie Isitt

Debbie Isitt cites Berkoff as one of her initial inspirations, particularly his play East. Isitt is one of many playwrights, actors or directors who have chosen more experimental ways of working. She joined Cambridge Experimental Theatre Company because she wanted to find a new way of making her work both accessible and at the same time find a new style or form. She admits to the incredible difficulties facing anyone taking this route: “It’s very easy to allow this industry to silence you. You know, you can’t get on in the right theatre, your play can’t be put in the right theatre, you won’t be seen. How do you overcome that? … That’s the challenge. How do you keep growing as an artist and yet keep fighting the system? It’s a constant battle. I intend to stay with it.”

Performing Processes, Edited by Roberta Mock, 2000, Published by Intellect Books. p.23

Di King

Tim Pemberton

Judith  Philips

Amber Priestly

Melanie Revil

Lucy Richardson

Rebecca Simpson

Chris Sculthorpe

Richard Spaul

Bella Stewart

Tilda Swinton

Clare Watson

Sara Waite

Alan Wilson

Brigid Zengeni

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