After eight years, you might think that a concept was on the verge of running out of steam – not Shit-faced Shakespeare! Since they began in 2010, they’ve enjoyed many sell-out runs at both Edinburgh and Brighton fringe festivals, also playing in Australia and, since 2015, performing in Boston, USA. The team also has regular stints in London, most often at the Leicester Square Theatre. This is the scene of their return, where they are currently taking on The Merchant of Venice; later in the year they will switch over to Romeo and Juliet.
Even though they know that one fifth of the company will be drunk (and made steadily more so throughout the show), it still falls upon them to devise a condensed version of the play that will work for five actors and fit into a running time of around an hour. The Merchant of Venice is one of those Shakespeare plays that doesn’t fit neatly under the label of either comedy or tragedy, instead floating somewhere in between the two. They have chosen to accentuate the comedy in this case, as befits audience expectations of the evening – there are some great dramatic moments included, though mostly around Shylock, so when he’s inebriated it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen!
In case you’re unfamiliar with Shit-faced Shakespeare, one of the five actors will spend the afternoon leading up to the show having a selection of alcoholic drinks; a couple of audience members also get the chance to intervene during the show itself if they think the actor is starting to sober up. For the press night performance Louise Lee (Jessica) was the Shit-faced Shakespearean, having imbibed eight bottles of lager (of varying description) and a double vodka & orange.
It’s always fun trying to work out which of the cast is the drunk one, as you can’t know how well they might be able to hold it together – Lee is the last actor to appear onstage, as part of the funeral party for Portia’s father, so there was a bit of anticipation in some early scenes but there was absolutely no mistaking she was the one. I mean, no one else would think to bang the coffin and start shouting, “Bring out your dead!” would they? From talking in broken Italian, German & French, to leading Saul Marron on a merry chase around the auditorium – and even inventing details of her mother’s death (Antonio tripped her up and she hit her head on a cabbage). She also proved very keen to baptise herself in Venice’s Grand Canal before marrying Antonio!
You also have to take your hat off to the rest of the cast, as they have to be able to improvise around their drunken colleague’s outbursts (and also with the clock in mind). What is truly brilliant is when they go along with these new details and weave them into the remainder of the performance. You are basically guaranteed to never see the same show twice, whoever has been drinking. The amount of text they’re all able to remember while they’re bladdered is quite remarkable – even if it does take five times as long to get a complete sentence out…
As long as you’re not precious about Shakespeare you will have a whale of a time at this completely bonkers show. It’s the perfect way to escape from day-to-day stresses and laugh until you run out of breath!
My verdict? Shakespearean silliness continues to entertain, as drunkenness diverts Shylock’s scheming – just keep out of the vom zone!
Shit-faced Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice runs at the Leicester Square Theatre until 2 June 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Other Shit-faced Shakespeare productions will be running at various venues across the UK this year.