One of the most wonderfully volatile fringe theatre productions of recent years has set up shop in London’s Leicester Square Theatre: this is Shakespeare, but not as you know it. Established in 2010, and self-described as the “deeply highbrow fusion of an entirely serious Shakespeare play with an entirely shit-faced cast member”, “Shit-Faced Shakespeare” attempt to perform a heavily condensed version of one of the Bard’s classics whilst having to contend with the unexpected outbursts of one heavily inebriated cast member. What results is a hilariously chaotic show, which generically falls somewhere between theatre and improvised comedy. For their run in Leicester Square (which extends until September), the play getting the “Shit-Faced” treatment is Much Ado About Nothing.
The audience are ushered in by Shit-Faced Shakespeare himself (or herself – the actors have all learnt multiple parts and swap roles each night), who gets everyone in the mood for the silliness to follow. The enthusiasm that Rob Smythson managed to generate in this role was particularly impressive given the performance’s start time of 7pm. It is fair to say that this is substantially earlier than this troupe are used to treading the boards at the Edinburgh Fringe. This early curtain call and the more traditional theatrical surroundings had me slightly concerned about how well these fringe favourites would handle the transition to the London stage. Although the Leicester Square Theatre is regularly home to live music as well as stage productions, “Shit-Faced Shakespeare” regularly perform in the Udderbelly: an inflated upside-down purple cow. It immediately became clear that these fears were unfounded, however: the energy of this cast is enough to fill the venue.
After a short video presentation about the global adventures of “Shit-Faced Shakespeare”, which have encompassed everywhere from Atlanta to Butlins, their heavily abridged version of Much Ado About Nothing begins. The audience have been informed of how much alcohol tonight’s “drunk” has consumed, and two audience members are given musical instruments to play if it seems at any point the actor in question is sobering up and could do with another beer. This is as disruptive to the play as you would imagine. The entertainment of “Shit-Faced Shakespeare” is tied to the impossible task that the sober members of the cast are set in keeping some semblance of the plot of the play intact. Every performance will obviously be unique, but no other production you see of Much Ado About Nothing will feature moments such as Hero being dragged across the stage while shouting, “I love you Santa!” at a member of the audience in the front row. Nor are you likely to see to see another performance in which the play goes so off-script that Hero rejects Claudio, hints at a lesbian relationship with Beatrice, and swears off men altogether.
Managing the on-stage drunk forces the other cast members to improvise, and this is usually at its most comic when they attempt to create something resembling modernised Shakespearean verse. To give just one example, Saul Marron’s Claudio, in an attempt to keep a connection to Beth-Louise Priestley’s heavily inebriated and increasingly difficult Hero, worked the line, “Though I’m able to see you are bat-shit crazy / I should have no other lady” into his proposal. The emphasis in the show is usually much more on the “Shit-Faced” than the “Shakespeare”, but this is what makes it engaging: nobody – not even the actors – know what is going to happen next. This is combined with a very intense level of audience interaction throughout the show, which adds an extra layer of unpredictability to the proceedings and maintains the volatility of the format.
Putting aside understandable concerns about the health of these actors, and what the existence and popularity of this show says about binge drinking culture more generally, this format does make for a genuinely hilarious and incredibly silly show. For their part, Magnificent Bastard Productions – the company behind “Shit-Faced Shakespeare” – make clear that no performer is asked to drink on consecutive nights, and no-one is ever required to do so more than three times over the course of a month. This leads them to the tongue-in-cheek conclusion that this is perhaps “the most sober cast of actors you’re likely to find on the West End”. Many production companies nowadays try and do something a little different with Shakespeare’s plays, and “Shit-Faced Shakespeare” have certainly found a unique way to achieve this. More than this they have committed to their idea: their productions may seem utter chaos, but with the guiding external force of the character of Shit-Faced Shakespeare able to step in at any minute (frequently necessary when the drunk for the evening decides to wander off stage), they always maintain a degree of organisation. This is possibly the starkest illustration of combining the words “binge drinking” and “culture”, but as long as you don’t go in expecting the RSC, this is a great opportunity to see these fringe veterans performing a show they have honed for over half a decade.
Shit Faced Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing is showing at London’s Leicester Square Theatre until the 17th of September. More information and tickets can be found here.
 Programme notes