By Danielle Farrow
So, do you have to be shit-faced yourself to enjoy this Shakespeare? No, actually: though the audience are merry from the start, this production has enough built-in entertainment to be pretty amusing in its own right. Helping out, a ringmistress makes sure everyone understands what is going on re. the drinking rules – one actor (never the same one on consecutive nights) has been steadily drinking during the day and is now performing drunk, and can be given further booze during the show, as requested by audience members with instruments – and also herds the drunken performer during the show.
For this performance, the drinker was actress Jennie Fox, so she played a main role (in order to appear often on stage, one assumes). Fox tended to commentate when she was not in a scene, both offstage and on. It is likely this is encouraged by the director / troupe, as the bulk of the humour comes from seeing and hearing her antics, though some of Shakespeare’s comedy does still shine in the production. For all that these are supposedly ‘classically trained’ actors performing in ‘an entirely serious Shakespeare play’ (this year the comedy Much Ado About Nothing), it is telling to hear the drunken actress admit at one point that she doesn’t actually understand lines she is supposed to say. So, do not go expecting to really enjoy a Shakespeare play for itself, though the story is actually kept clear and there are signs that the company might do a decent job of presenting the play shit-faced-less, should they ever try.
There is the expected slapstick humour of watching someone perform drunk in physical stumbles, a certain flirtatiousness, loss of lines, etc. but a real attraction of Shit-faced Shakespeare is the old ‘in vino veritas’ and certainly the running commentary of the sozzled actress on herself, the director and other fellow performers, and the play itself provides guffaws, giggles and gasps galore – and even a moment of slight pathos. It was also to be noted that the cast helped Fox as a person as well as a struggling, yet determined, actress and that there were actually few calls for her to drink further. While she did seem to bang her head – though not severely – on a couple of occasions, the overall feel was that the cast take care of their own through this, though the ethics of someone being contracted to kill brain cells remain somewhat murky.
This Much Ado About Nothing does not solely rely on one actor being drunk – it has a few other gags built on the script itself and on the adlibbing of performers, particularly fine from John Sebastian Mitton, playing the Don (an interesting conflation of good Don Pedro, bad Don John and all the latter’s henchmen) and Megan Shandley as Hero’s parent (here Leonata) – and the framework for the piece is also strong with the concept well-handled. For this viewing, too, there was a feeling of genuine warmth among the audience as well as the cast.
Shit-faced Shakespeare is an amusing concept that works well with the chosen play (Shakespeare really can take anything) and is handled with deft adroitness that carries the whole off as more than just a single-level conceit. Good fun!