21 April – 2 June, 2018
Directed by Lewis Ironside
Magnificent Bastard Productions
Look, Sh!t-faced Shakespeare basically does what it says on the tin: a production of one of the Bard’s plays, in which one (classically trained) actor is horrendously drunk. A liver-protecting schedule means that it’s a different actor each night – on Thursday, for Press Release night, it was Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Louise Lee). I honestly don’t know how someone her size managed to down the alleged eight bottles of lager and double vodka & orange without becoming catatonic, but actors are well known for their alcohol tolerance, I suppose!
We were welcomed to the show by Saul Marron in a ridiculous outfit introducing the
rules of the drinking game artistic conceit of the production and disparaging an audience member’s inability to blow a bugle. (Two audience members were given noise-making devices to use if they wished to make the actor take another drink; a third had the less fun task of… holding a bucket.)
Then the play proper began, and with it, the suspicion that any and every character might be the hammered one – but when she stepped on stage it was instantly obvious that she was the one. The Merchant of Venice is not one of my favourite Shakespeares and I don’t know it intimately, but I’m fairly sure the original doesn’t have any Monty Python references, incest, calls to the Yorkshire cops, cabbage-related murders, or intermittent squawks of “aaaaaaaaaaargh” when a line went missing (which was… often). It was difficult to tell whether Lee’s level of intoxication was genuine or played up, but either way, she was certainly embracing it, and the audience was in fits of laughter as she stumbled and babbled her way through the play. The other actors’ reactions to her improvisations – and subsequent references to them throughout the play – were almost as comedic; it was clear that everyone in the cast was having an absolute ball, and taking the audience along with them.
Merchant of Venice is, of course, a tricky play to stage as a comedy in modern times due to its anti-Semitic nature and extremely problematic ending; the last production I saw of it, at the Globe, tackled this by having the tone take a dramatic turn at the end, flipping from comedy to tragedy. Needless to say, Sh!t-faced Shakespeare’s version was a far cry from the Globe, but I actually preferred their revisionist change to the ending, which entirely circumvented the grotesque tragicomedy of the original script (as I’m not sure how much was improvised and how much planned, I won’t spoil how this was achieved). However, this whole-hearted commitment to silly, crude comedy did mean that some of the play’s most affecting moments – if you prick us, do we not bleed? – felt cheapened and flat.
The question that kept running through my mind as I sat in the audience was, What would Will think if he were here watching this? I suspect the answer would be a) he wouldn’t understand a word of the improvisations because language has changed so much, but also b) if he did understand it all, Shakespeare would love it. The high school English curriculum can be blamed for drying out Shakespeare’s plays to the point of desiccation, and the resulting impression that his work is stuffy, serious, highbrow stuff, but I suspect that what I saw on Thursday night was probably closer in spirit to what Shakespeare’s troupe would have performed in his time. I am all for a return to accessible Bard.
All that said, there’s really not much to Sh!t-faced Shakespeare’s production of Merchant other than its titular gimmick, and having to cram a condensed script as well as improvised drunken shenanigans into 70 minutes took its toll on the material. If you’re after a belly laugh, and are already a few drinks the worse/better for wear yourself, this production will make for a fun evening with a few mates; but don’t expect much more than that.