Brighton Fringe 2014
When I first heard of Shit-Faced Shakespeare, just over a year ago, I presumed it was either a one-off experiment or a hoax. When I realised it wasn’t either of those, that it was actually a repeatable production that really operated in the way they said it did, my eyes narrowed. What’s really going on in there, where they do such things? Only one way to find out…
Earlier this year, I discovered that I’m gluten intolerant. This has fundamentally affected, amongst other things, my choice of and entire approach to booze. I have had to stop drinking beer completely, and I was really starting to get into those nice speciality golden ales and IPAs as well. Never again…
Instead I really am enjoying those plentiful new-flung fruit-flavoured ciders from Scandinavia. See! My whole entire approach to booze! Transmogrified!
So when it was revealed at The Warren that the designated drunk for the evening (basically they do a Shakespeare and one of them’s Shit-Faced – see older reviews for low-down on exactly what this show’s fabulously puerile premise is) had got through over half a bottle of vodka, an Archer’s Woo Woo and no less than two different flavours of new-flung fruit-flavoured cider, I immediately thought, “That’s exactly what I’d choose! I wonder if he’s gluten intolerant.”
I’m sure he’s not (although he did later declare a dislike for the particular brand of beer he was plied with), and all I’m saying is: doesn’t theatre help our brains bring unexpected thoughts to bear? Theatre is very good exercise for those neural pathways.
Booze, on the other hand, isn’t. Booze does cause neural pathway leaps to unexpected places, and artists will claim it unlocks their creativity. Still, ultimately it has a dampening effect on the sum total of our endeavours. This trajectory – from creative genius to moist flannel – is followed quite accurately by our drunk this evening, who peaks early, his highly inventive tirade of witty asides and audience abuse soon descending into a few inaudible mumblings and a couldn’t-care-less attitude towards making sense of the play. The audience gee him on with increasingly strained laughs to be more ridiculous, but his superpower is spent.
We do love to laugh at a drunk. Usually, we’re not really allowed to, unless they’re a very good friend, or we’re drunk too. Part of the appeal of this show is that it promises us the rare chance to point, stare and laugh at a stranger who’s drunk. Because, you have to admit, they can be very funny. This one certainly is. For a while at least. In fact, it’s always funnier when he’s there than when he’s not. When he’s not onstage, our eyes are on the wings, hoping he’ll trip over a tab or find the house lights, not on the production. (It’s an interesting phenomenon that we concentrate on the story better when the drunk guy’s there messing it up.)
A great thing about drunks is that they’ve done it to themselves. You know there was only ever one person who administered drink to the drunk, and that was the drunk himself. You know that if these guys have signed up to do this show despite the potential long-term damage, then, well, you’re allowed a laugh.
Only 45% of the show’s title is about the booze. The rest is about the Bard, so let’s consider that percentage too. The text (Much Ado About Nothing, this evening) is directed in the traditional manner, by which I mean in simple period costume, no items of set, very few props, slightly exaggerated gesture but certainly no hamming. It has been expertly cut so that the entire story, minus subplots but plus drunken antics, fits neatly into a single hour. The (sober) actors are perfectly talented enough, and seem to empathise to some degree with the characters they’re playing, but there is not a single person in the room who’s actually following the story. This isn’t because the drunk keeps disrupting things, but because it’s not what we came here for. A friend to whom I described the show’s premise said, “Hmm…well, I guess it’s a way of getting a new audience interested in Shakespeare who wouldn’t normally see it,” and yes, that would be admirable, but I’m pretty certain that’s not what’s going on here. The reason they’ve chosen Shakespeare, I suspect, is because for the company’s target audience, in their target inebriated state, theatre equals Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a convenient and universally recognised rack to hang the real show (the drunkshow) off. The door is open to spin-offs – Pissed Pinter, perhaps, or Chekhov-with-a-Chunder – but it would essentially be the same show we’re going to. We’re enjoying seeing theatre being trashed by drunks. The specific playwright that’s chosen is entirely irrelevant. More interesting might be similar experiments in other performing arts – Completely Drunk Contemporary Dance, or Rat-Arsed Rachmaninov.
(Having mentioned dance, I should say that the complicated dance routine involving the whole cast is the show’s best moment – it’s a booby-trap for the drunk, a hurdle that he must cross, and the show could do with more such tricks up its sleeve.)
I can recommend this show because I think you’re over eighty percent likely to see a performance better than the one I saw, and the one I saw was often very enjoyable. I can also recommend it from an intriguing-experiments-in-theatrical-form point of view; it could well be mentioned in University textbooks in twenty or even a hundred years’ time. I can also recommend it because there’s no guarantee it’ll be around forever: a future puritanical tyranny may ban it, or the cast may suddenly consider what they’re actually doing. I can also recommend it because I know that deep down you do want to go and see it, and I certainly don’t want to be the one to stop you.