I was a little apprehensive about my first time at Sh!t-Faced Shakepeare. Their reviews were good but improv’s never been a favourite of mine and I’d forgotten most of the plot – always a worry when Elizabethan language is involved. But I needn’t have worried. Elizabethan language is no issue when the person doing it can’t remember their lines anyway, and it turns out improv is perfect for drunken shenanigans. Which, thinking about it, is probably how it was invented anyway.
Thespians being low-key alcoholics is a long tradition, and in this instance the fusion of alcohol with theatre turns out to be inspired. It’s all the best things about comedy, Shakespeare and an exceptionally heavy Friday night. Just as the old-timey language becomes too hard to follow a character will fall over, call for a sick bucket or decide to kiss their own dad. And the converse is true as well, if the direction of the improvisation runs out of steam a sober cast member will pull it back to the story – a bizarrely perfect, symbiotic relationship.
It’s not The Merchant of Venice like you’ve ever seen it before, but some exceptional moments of theatre are created out of the chaos. On this night Jessica is the elected drunken cast member and she has really committed to the job. It’s only when a gondola (on wheels) rolls onto stage that I remember she has to climb out of a window. Unperturbed she begins to toss treasure down onto her poor, waiting lover and, with a bit of help, eventually follows into the boat. The entire sequence is a reminder of just how genius the Baird’s use of physical space is. That his work was always supposed to be watched not read, almost certainly by an audience who will have been fairly inebriated themselves.
Despite this adversity, the cast are brilliant on all counts. The fun they’re having seems genuine, and as such is impossibly contagious. But that’s not to say they can’t act. Shylock is especially powerful, in contrast to the raucousness and hilarity of the show as a whole his rendition of the, “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is still heart-breaking. The audience is plunged into stunned silence, the carpet ripped from under them by the change of pace.
In the history of theatre there’s not many shows that could incorporate Rihanna songs, an unexpected call to the Yorkshire police and an escaped cast member. Sh!t-faced Shakespeare is one of those ideas that’s so ridiculous that it’s impossible to work out whether the result will be revolutionary or disastrous. But it seems to be the former. Either way, you’ll never look at Shakespeare the same way again.