Merchant of Venice, Sh*t-faced Shakespeare @ Leicester Square Theatre

21 April – 2 June, 2018
Directed by Lewis Ironside
Magnificent Bastard Productions

-®Rah Petherbridge Photography- Shit Live LSquare2018 (2)

Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

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.

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Heart Into Mouth, Theatre1880 @ Bread & Roses Theatre

7th April
By Francis Grin
Directed by Jamie Blake

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people sitting, people standing, beard and indoor

Image credit: Jamie Blake

Heart Into Mouth is a short and (bitter)sweet piece of theatre which ran for one night only this Saturday as part of the Pub Theatre Festival (Friday 30th March to Saturday 14th April 2018), which showcases new writing and talent. The cosy, stripped-back theatre space was upstairs at the Bread & Roses Theatre in Clapham, and perfectly accommodated the show’s two actors, their props (two coathangers), and set pieces (two chairs). Clocking in at half an hour, the piece followed the more-or-less autobiographical trials and tribulations of a struggling actress as she juggles degrading catering work with degrading auditions and in general a showbiz life which is, well, not all it’s cracked up to be.

This work exhibited how a number of theatrical elements can be pulled off successfully when written and acted just right. These include: the use of the second person; intertwining/interweaving anecdotal plots; repetition; and multiple roles portrayed by two actors, mainly differentiated through accent and physical mannerism. Actors Fleur de Wit and Davey Seagle took the opportunity to demonstrate their accent work and ran with it – to this reviewer’s (admittedly Australian and easily impressed) ears, each strain of Irish, RP, American, Southern, and various British brogues sounded very authentic and perfectly pitched for comedy. Because despite the somewhat grim subject matter, comedy it was, of the sort which alternated between inducing wry snickers, hearty chuckles, disbelieving/mortified groans, and the occasional suckerpunch aimed right at the heart strings.

By the sounds of it, most of the audience was comprised of theatre industry veterans, and a lot of the material hit almost a little too close to home (though I doubt Heart Into Mouth would be enjoyed half so much by non-industry punters). Perhaps not all of us had been dressed in offensive/humiliating costumes and made to burn our hands on roast turkeys, or brought to animalistic tears after repeating a passage from King Lear until it no longer made sense, or having to sit through an Uber driver’s account of his own prowess at African singing. But I’d be willing to bet that most members of that audience had, at some point, found themselves staring in the mirror after yet another rejection or nightmare hospitality shift, and wondered…. is it all worth it? Have I made the right choice?

This play does not answer that question. Instead, it posits – out of the blue, from an entirely unexpected source of wisdom – that it doesn’t matter what you choose. It just matters that you choose.

For a half-hour two-person one-night-only upstairs-in-a-pub play, Heart Into Mouth got a lot of things very right. To be honest, having read its short description on a flyer and realising that it was largely autobiographical, I had been expecting something a lot more… look, there’s no other word for it: wanky. Instead, it struck just the right balance between self-deprecating hilarity and genuine anger at and criticism of our treatment of people in both the arts and hospitality industries, with truly affecting moments sprinkled throughout stories that were so ridiculous they could only be real. For the most part, the performance was smooth and polished, the actors only stumbling on lines once and recovering quickly. Seagle and de Wit had excellent professional chemistry, bouncing off and perfectly complementing each other’s styles. Thirty minutes was just the right amount of time for this piece as well – if it were shorter it would be unsatisfying, longer and the premise might not hold out. As such, it could be difficult to find another appropriate context in which to stage it, but I hope that such an opportunity does crop up, because this sparkling little gem merits more time in the light.

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Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine, Pirates of the Carabina @ The Roundhouse

3rd – 15th April
Pirates of the Carabina, James Williams

Photography by Paul Blakemore

Last night I learnt that you’re never too old for the circus. My audience neighbours at The Roundhouse for this cabaret-gymnastic-acrobatic extravaganza were an older lady on one side and a family with small children on the other, and both parties seemed equally enthralled by the wonders on stage on front of us.

The Pirates of the Carabina have not only an excellent name but also bucketloads of talent, something which was evident right from the opening sequence, during which all performers were on stage and spinning through the air around a sort of giant mechanical maypole. The ease of their acrobatics, the smoothness of the choreography, and the exquisite accompanying live music, all combined to form an impression of absolutely surrealness, like watching sychronised swimming from underwater in a dream.

Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine is supposedly the story of ‘two fated neighbours in the course of a day’s misadventures, as they make some surprising new discoveries about the world – and each other‘, however this is not particularly clear other than at the very beginning and very end of the show. Instead, the show comes across simply as a series of unconnected, surreal, abstract acts with recurring characters (the lonely man and his temperamental cat, the steampunky ethereal dancer, the handsome and aloof businessman, the dreamy girl next door, and the clumsy travelling salesman who just wants to eat his sandwich in peace). Not a single word of dialogue is spoken onstage, but it isn’t needed, and nor really is a plot – the succession of physical feats, slapstick comedy, and stunning audio-visual tableaux are enough to keep the audience totally hooked.

I wish I had photos of my face during the performance to share my reactions with you! The number of times I gasped out loud when performers went spinning or hurtling through the air, or laughed at the silly skits and skillful facial acting, or gave a disbelieving “huh” at some clever or improbable trick… But mostly I was simply staring wide-eyed in wonderment. (And thinking: what, can every performer in this show dance, act, do acrobatics, play an instrument, AND sing?? Not fair!)

What you (and your children! bring them!) can expect from this show:
A hunky trapeze artist
A hilarious tightrope walker (nearly as skinny as his balancing pole!)
A pretty party girl who can glide through the air on ropes but struggles with stairs
A typewriter used for percussion
A roller-skate chase scene slash dance-off
A levitating piano played by a woman with the voice of an angel
A butterfly lady dancing in a hoop
A man who shouldn’t have been able to walk on champagne bottles like that

I also want to give a special shout-out to the small girl in the front row who yelled some very concerned advice at one of the performers: “You shouldn’t eat cat food, stop!!!” She has a point, you know…

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Devil with the Blue Dress @ The Bunker Theatre

29th March – 28th April, 2018

by Kevin Armento
Directed by Joshua McTaggart
The Bunker Theatre, Seaview Productions, and Desara Bosnja

Devil With The Blue Dress, The Bunker (Flora Montgomery and Kristy Phillips) - courtesy of Helen Murray

Photography by Helen Murray

‘This play exists in the space between awake and asleep… Being that kind of space, things aren’t totally realistic. It’s dimly lit. It’s set to music. And it’s where memory lives…’

Walking into The Bunker Theatre for their production of Devil With the Blue Dress really does feel like stepping into some sort of liminal space between past and present, UK and US, fiction and reality. In the cosy, brightly-lit foyer, friendly bartenders joke with patrons as they pour themed cocktails (amber-coloured for Clinton, blue for Lewinsky); step through the doors into the theatre, and you enter a space of shadows and hushed conversation, with the honeyed notes of a jazz saxophonist floating down from the corner. There is no phone signal down here – well, it is a bunker – and the thrust stage is empty, with only three sets of feet visible behind the back curtain, like puppets waiting for their strings to be pulled. The action begins when Hillary, played by Flora Montgomery resplendent in a pink pantsuit, steps out to introduce us to the play and its characters.

The two women in the spotlight in this play are, of course, Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The three other major characters – Chelsea Clinton, Bill’s secretary Betty, and Republican Linda Tripp – exist mainly to facilitate these women’s storytelling and offer alternative perspectives on events. They also play other roles where needed, most notably that of Bill Clinton. All three actresses did excellent impressions of the erstwhile president and were able to signal the switch into his role with no costume changes or visual cues except accent, mannerisms, and facial expressions (my favourite Bill was the version by Kristy Philipps). As a result, the Bill Clinton we saw on stage was both a shadowy, insubstantial figure, and a caricature; he was given no character arc or hidden motives, and all three-dimensionality was reserved for the women of the story, which I think was a powerful and effective decision.

The timing of this production, one year into the Trump presidency and at the height of the #MeToo movement, was of course no accident. Although neither topic is specifically named, much of the play’s philosophical depth comes from this contemporary context and challenges us to consider tough questions. Is consent really consent with such extremes of power differences at play? (“But of course she had a choice / But of course she didn’t”) How do we reconcile conflicting expectations of womanhood within modern feminism? (“None of you have a monopoly on how to be a woman!”) Why do we hold women in power up to impossibly high standards, when the same isn’t true for men? (“People feel like I’m corrupt, or untrustworthy, even if they can’t put their finger on why.”)

The most powerful moment in this play comes towards the end, when the narrative reaches the trial and the Clintons, their presidency, and Monica all begin to fall apart. Hillary, Monica, Betty, and Linda begin hurling accusations and insults at each other, shifting the blame, verbally tearing each other apart, and as the shouting reaches a climax, Chelsea interrupts to deliver the unvoiced central truth of the scandal. Philipps’ performance here sent shivers down my spine.

My only criticism of Devil with the Blue Dress was its metatheatrical elements. There was so much food for thought in this performance, it really didn’t need to have that extra dimension of Hillary referencing the fact that this was “her play”, and alluding throughout to the nature of theatre (the observation that politics and theatre are both centred around spectacle is certainly an interesting one, but was not explored in enough depth to merit its introduction). In addition, the premise that everything on stage was taking place in Hillary’s memory or imagination seemed to be at odds with how much of the action did not involve Hillary, and often explored the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of other characters. Changes in character, setting, and time were made clear enough without self-referential signposting – I feel that writer Kevin Armento should have had more faith in his audience to catch on, without needing to add a metatheatrical component which felt cumbersome to the story and performance.

This play and production are both unapologetically pro-Hillary in attitude (there are even “I still stand with her” badges on sale in the foyer) and at times portrays her with a level of sympathy (and artistic license) that almost strays into hero worship territory (interestingly, the casting decisions meant that this production’s Hillary towers over its Monica in a way that serves to reinforce the political and moral high ground she inhabits, although in reality Hillary is marginally shorter than Monica). However, this partisanship is unlikely to overtly bother anyone who has chosen to enter The Bunker; they know their audience, and this is definitely a sermon designed for the choir. As a side note, if you are planning on seeing this play, which I would highly recommend, it could be a good idea to brush up on your knowledge of the Lewinsky scandal; as a non-American who was in primary school when these events took place, I no doubt missed some of the political and historical allusions which flew thick and fast across the stage.

There is so much to unpack in this ferociously intelligent production about history, power, gender, and heartbreak – I may have to see it again before its run ends at the end of April. I hope to see you there in the foyer – the question is, which cocktail will you pick, whose side will you take?

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Read our interview with Joshua McTaggart here