Hello! This week I am posting on the theme of Drunk Theatre, whether that refers to me in the audience, the actors, or (as in today’s post) both. Here is the tentative schedule:
Monday: Edward II at the National Theatre
Tuesday: Shitfaced Shakespeare at Edinburgh Fringe
Wednesday: Total Hero Team at the Camden Head
Thursday: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (this is tonight; I may not post about it if I am too sober during)
Friday: Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic
I immediately regretted ever planning the trip to Edinburgh or saying anything about going to Fringe or getting married or in fact ever being born as I faced Ewan’s gracious soft-spoken posh aunt, who was kindly putting us up in her home near the city centre for the week, and tried to figure out how to form the words “Shitfaced Shakespeare”.
“It’s, er, I think it’s an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing,” I said.
“Oh yes?” she said, and picked up the giant Edinburgh Fringe Festival Guide on the table and flipped through it. “Ah, here it is, Much Ado About Nothing. Oh, but this is at six o’clock, you’re missing it!”
“Oh no, it’s not that one,” I said. “It’s, I think it’s called something different.”
“Oh yes?” Behind me my mother left to refill her water glass. Thanks Mom. “Maybe it’s under ‘comedy’. How odd, I can’t find it.”
“SHITFACED SHAKESPEARE,” I said, “it’s called ‘Shitfaced Shakespeare’, it’s, they get drunk and do Shakespeare.”
“Ah, here it is!” Ewan’s aunt looked up, smiling. “Well, that sounds fun!”
The conceit of Shitfaced Shakespeare is simple: it’s a production of Shakespeare and one of the cast members is shitfaced. “Everything you see tonight is real and our actor is genuinely, highly inebriated”, the program says. Which cast member will be The Drunk One is chosen at random on the morning of the performance; there are some guidelines, so no one is drunk two nights in a row or more than four times in the month-long run. The program reassures us that “we take care of each other and always make sure that our drunken actor has a smashing time before, during and after every single show.”
Magnificent Bastards Theatre has been doing Shitfaced Shakespeare for a few years with different plays, and this year it was “Much Ado About Nothing”, which is a pretty hard one to cock up (although not impossible, as you’ll read on Friday). The running time was listed as one hour, which seems just about the right length for some poor soul to stagger around on stage without (a) vomiting or (b) sobering up.
Like a lot of Fringe shows, the play was in a building with several small theatres. There was a “pop-up bar” on the first storey – ie, a guy with a fold-up table, a cash box, a few bottles and a mini-fridge – and my mother and I grabbed a double whisky and soda (her) and bottle of red (me) before joining the queue for seats. There was a good age spread among the audience members and everyone was in a party mood: it was the first week of Fringe and the festival still felt new and shiny. There was a cluster of drama students in front of us, who kept insisting that one of them “do your monologue!”; past them I spotted a brunette actor in thrift shop Elizabethan dress clutching a bottle of prosecco, giggling and being herded backstage by two other women, also in blouses and corsets.
When we were inside and seated, the compere (John Sebastian Mitton, also producer) explained the concept of the show (which again: not that complicated) and showed a pail containing the empty bottles The Drunk One had consumed that afternoon: a bottle of prosecco, most of a fifth of gin and a pathetically small box of orange juice. He also handed out a gong, a horn and a bucket to three audience members. The gong and horn would trigger another drink for whichever cast member was The Drunk One, and “if you hear anybody call for ‘Bucket!’, well, you know what to do”. I mean, it seems incredibly unlikely that they would rely on some probably-also-drunk punter in the front row to catch an actor’s spew, but it was a fun way to set up the anything-goes risky party atmosphere of the night.
As the play started we quickly learned:
- Leonato had been changed to Leonata, Hero’s mother;
- Don John and Don Pedro were fascinatingly elided into a single character, and I am so in love with that comment on the selfish manipulations of the Don brothers even if it is just a way to deal with a cast of seven;
- The shitfaced Shakespearean was Beth-Louise Priestley as Hero, and I suddenly realised that a drunk Hero staggering her way through Messina was the best thing that has ever happened to this play.
She emerged blinking from the womb of the curtains and declared: “Golly wanker.” At first I thought she was playing it up a bit (and fair enough, the audience paid for drunk Shakespeare and we wanted to see drunk Shakespeare), but after around ten minutes she started trying to focus on her lines and it became obvious that she was definitely, thoroughly straight-up pissed.
I imagine every performance is fun but that night was sublime: it was Hero getting to say everything you always want her to say. When Claudio and Don Pedro revealed their deception at the masked ball, she responded by sitting on the floor and declaring, “Fuck you.” (Lewis Ironside as Benedick, off to the side talking with Beatrice, immediately spun that into an improv directed at his sparring partner: “Which echoes my sentiments entirely!”) While the men debated her virginity at her wedding, the cast-off Hero flopped on her back off to the side of the stage, occasionally making small invisible snow angels, and propped herself on her elbows to protest, “I’m not a whore!” When Leonata said “Hath no man’s dagger here a point for me?”, Hero loudly (and correctly) responded, “Piss off, Mum.”
Near the end during Hero’s ‘funeral’, Priestley wandered offstage and started chatting to the compere about getting a kebab after the show, and pulled him onstage for her second wedding to Claudio. “I’ve married John offstage,” she announced. “I’ve found a much nicer husband than you.” The play was a whistlestop through the text, which was fine (no Dogberry), and I imagine the Beatrice & Benedick overhearing scenes are excellent when it’s one of their turns. The night I saw it, Beatrice had to keep prompting Hero for her own bait, which was delectable.
There were a few ‘bits’ I thought were probably planned ahead, although possibly only in drunk-person-head: Priestley sat down upstage during a Beatrice/Benedick scene and rang Domino’s pizza on her mobile: “It’s two-for-one Tuesday, look, they all want one!” she said, gesturing to the audience. Of course we cheered. But there were also bits that were too dull to be anything but genuine intoxication, like when she spent five minutes picking at tape on the stage floor, and especially during the choreographed ceilidh-style dance at the masked ball when she was quietly chanting the steps-to-the-tune that anyone who has ever learned a dance will recognise: “front side behind side, left side behind side…”
“Gosh, it’s fun being the drunk one,” Priestley announced three-quarters of the way through, and Beatrice and Leonata laughed and agreed. Drunkenness means expressing desire and contradicting people, two things Hero never gets to do in the text. She probably doesn’t even get to order a pizza when she wants one.
VERDICT: I have no idea how successful the production is when it’s another character’s turn, although the actors are very funny so I’m sure it’s excellent, but I’m so, so glad I got to see that explosive, subversive Hero. WOULD RECOMMEND DRUNK (and probably sober too, but…why would you?).
Shitfaced Shakespeare runs intermittently across the UK during the year but seems to be definitely at Edinburgh Fringe every summer; tickets this year were £10.50.