WHEN Herald arts went to see The Complete Deaths at Warwick Arts Centre last Friday, we couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride as we watched the brilliant performance. After we had played casting agent, a Stratford woman had been chosen to play the key part of Lady McDeath in the two-night show by Spymonkey, a national theatre company renowned for their physical comedy, and hilarious and intelligent take on classic works.
Liz Willets, 69, was recruited by Spymonkey after she read of the company’s desire to find a woman aged over 60 to play Lady McDeath in the Herald a couple of weeks ago. In the play, through a series of sketches, all of Shakespeare’s 75 onstage deaths are recreated. These range from the ridiculous to the sublime: from the 14 gruesome deaths in Titus Andronicus, when the company have slapstick fun with a giant butcher’s mincer, to Macbeth’s ten deaths, which are told via the medium of contemporary dance, featuring flesh-coloured rubber kilts and the flashing of genitals.
The Complete Deaths is more than a gore-and gag-fest though. It is a play within a play; behind the scenes we see the four actors fall out over artistic direction — the ensuing tension adding to the pathos and poignancy of the murderous goings on. We were literally crying with laughter throughout.
Liz explained how she got the role: “I read the call out in the Herald and thought I’d apply. Apart from being a finalist in an audition for a Daz advert I have no previous acting experience. I’m a writer, not really a performer, but when I Googled Spymonkey and saw what the production was, I really wanted to do it. I’m a keen Shakespeare fan, but not averse to sending him up.”
In her role as Lady McDeath Liz’s job was to sit at a table to the side of the stage and press a big red button on the table in front of her to countdown the deaths as they were performed. Spymonkey’s artistic director, Toby Park, told us: “Liz played a wonderful Lady McDeath whilst we were at Warwick Arts Centre. The important thing was that Liz needed not to ‘perform’ but just to ‘be’ in her own world — to ignore everything else, just as death does. It’s a world that provides a brilliant counterbalance to the frenzy of our performance, but can be quite difficult to do if you get immersed into the play!”
So how did Liz get in the right mode?
“I modelled my portrayal of Lady McDeath on Madge Alsopp — Edna Everidge’s bridesmaid. I bought my knitting with me and just enjoyed being onstage really!”
But could Liz’s performance make her a world record-breaker? She joked: “I suppose making my theatrical debut on 6th October, and retiring from the stage forever on 7th October means that it will be a stage career worthy of the Guinness Book of Records for brevity! “I loved the experience. However, I was disappointed to learn that I did not have to appear in vest and pants as shown in the publicity image in the Herald!”
Careful what you wish for, Liz! And thanks for the entertainment.