It is difficult to write extensively on a piece of theatre which can be aptly summarised in three words: pantomime for adults. For those unfamiliar with the wildly popular Shit-faced Shakespeare, the production has a simple and effective formula; five actors perform a Shakespearean play with one of their members seriously inebriated. In the name of health and safety (and quite a bit of common sense) the actor who will be tasked with getting completely sozzled is rotated every night. This has the added benefit of giving the evening a surprise element – you’re never sure which actor or character will be the rogue element. Naturally, which character is essentially out for the count has a big impact on the show and makes certain plot points easier or harder to progress. On the evening I was there the chosen victim was the character of Jessica played by an incredibly ‘shit-faced’ Louise Lee.
Those familiar with The Merchant of Venice will be aware that Jessica is the daughter of Shylock (Will Seaward), the money-lender that famously requests a pound of flesh if a debt fails to be repaid in time. She is also, however, in this production a mixture of both Jessica (the daughter) and Nerissa (the handmaiden to Portia). Understandably, given the limited cast, the production takes the liberty of merging some of it’s lesser characters. Whilst Portia (played by Stacey Norris) and Bassanio (Matthew Seager) remain intact, the character of Antonio (Christopher Lane) has more than a pinch of Lorenzo and Gratiano as well. It is very safe to say that this piece of theatre is not one for the purists – although anybody who had such sensibilities and still decided to see something titled ‘Shit-faced Shakespeare’ really only has themselves to blame.
In terms of the plot itself it has been liberally cut and edited to make it more manageable for both the time frame and inebriated cast member. In spite of this, on the evening I saw the production, even what still remained of the plot took quite a hit as the drunken Jessica rampaged from one scene to the next. I can state with confidence that if you were to see this production and you were unfamiliar with The Merchant of Venice before, you might walk away with an idea of the plot which is only a very distant and disturbing cousin to the original script. On the other hand, I’m sure that even Shakespeare would agree that a version of the story which features sooth-sayers, death by cabbage and sea monsters is a real improvement.
The richness of the comedy in Shit-faced Shakespeare lies not only in Louise Lee’s unpredictable free rein but also in the talented improvisation of the actors around her. Will Seward manages to deliver his lines with a surprising amount of pathos considering a good amount of the time he was on stage he was also having to physically wrangle a disturbingly lecherous ‘daughter’. The cast capitalises on some of Lee’s more bizarre announcements and deftly makes them into running jokes. Another joy is Saul Marron who doesn’t play a character in the play but instead has the duties of a host, babysitter and referee all tied up in one. The responsibility falls upon him to prevent Louise/Jessica flinging herself off of the scenery or exiting the building entirely, both of which she takes great pleasure in attempting. He talks directly to the audience, explaining how the process works and also getting them to actively engage in the production itself. Members of the audience are even given instruments to toot to summon more alcohol to the stage. This is another great addition to a Shakespearean play and is something which I feel should be rolled out to not just other pieces of theatre but also lengthy office meetings.
The Merchant of Venice as a play in many ways is perfect for a pantomime; the scene where Portia’s suitors have to pick between gold, silver and lead caskets to win her hand is straight out of a fairy tale. Shylock’s request for a pound of flesh wouldn’t look out of place in a Brothers Grimm story, nor would Antonio’s escape from his penalty by the disguised Portia’s verbal trickery. On the other hand, there are elements of the play which feel a little complex for the flippant format. Unlike a pantomime, this isn’t a story which features starkly contrasted heroes and villains, it is instead a play which fills a viewer with conflicting sympathies. This is deepened by the ever-present issue of race in the play, with the central character’s opinions and reactions to Judaism often feeling deeply uncomfortable. As Dawkins writes:
The Merchant of Venice is dangerous material and should carry an explosives warning. Because of its presentation of racialism, and of narrow, hypocritical national and religious values, particularly between Christians and Jews, it is hard to act on stage and even harder to write about, without stirring deep passions, further misunderstandings and hidden guilt. (Dawkins 5)
Unfortunately, in a production when one of the cast members is intent on causing mischief in the way that only a true drunk person can, it’s difficult to deal in subtleties. Although once again, I’ll hand it to Will Seaward that in the moments when he is able to get a few lines out he does so with gravitas. To be fair to Shit-faced Shakespeare they aren’t setting out to deliver a performance with fathoms of emotional depth – it’s meant to be just some good light-hearted fun. A goal which it absolutely delivers on, by the way. It’s just that I can’t help but think the format would work better with a play which is either more frivolous in nature (A Midsummer Night’s Dream jumps to mind) or has clear a villain/hero we can get behind. For instance, I would leap at the opportunity to boo/cheer a drunken Lady Macbeth as she slurs her way through her various murderous monologues.
The brilliant thing about Shit-faced Shakespeare of course is that they frequently switch out plays, so this might not just be wishful thinking on my part. For instance, later this year they will be putting on a production of Romeo & Juliet which has some immediate benefits in the form of a plot everyone is thoroughly familiar with and a pair of over-dramatic young lovers that we can all root for. If they can just get Leonardo DiCaprio to cameo, I am well and truly sold.
Dawkins, Peter. The Merchant of Venice: The Wisdom of Shakespeare. I.C. Media Productions, 1998.