In case you weren’t already aware of this little-known fact (I have been keeping modestly hush-hush about the matter), I am currently part of a show called Shit-faced Shakespeare, a production of a Shakespeare play in which one actor each night goes onstage drunk.
After our run at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, we did three shows at Bestival on the Isle of Wight; two in an outdoor amphitheatre seating around 500 people, and one unadvertised ‘secret show’ at an undisclosed location in the woods. I thought it was worth sharing the story of the secret show here, for any actor who has toured a show to a new venue and suddenly found themselves performing in a weird, parallel-dimension, sideshow magic-mirror version of the show they thought they knew.
On the day before the secret gig, we performed a show to a packed-out amphitheatre, plus several people who had apparently climbed into the trees at the back of the auditorium to watch. We were fully equipped with head mics and a sound desk, performing on a lovely spacious stage with a handy backstage area replete with free beers and cold drinks (really! Like we were Mariah Carey or something!). The show went brilliantly and we all lived happily ever after.
OR SO WE THOUGHT. On the Saturday, still revelling in the success of our Friday show, we duly got our chosen drunk (who also happened to be the director) magnificently pissed, and marched him into the woods. After spending half an hour trying to decide which of the beer-can-strewn clearings was furthest away from the many sources of blaring music, we picked a spot, and without any further ado (or even a bit of paper taped to a tree to show who we were or what we were doing – a mistake in hindsight), started the play.
As our compere enthusiastically introduced the show to passers-by who had no interest further than wondering vaguely what all these weird people were doing in Elizabethan costume, the great philosophical quandary occurred to me, “if some actors do a play in the woods and no-one watches, is it actually a play?” Gradually, as the show went on, one or two people sat down, but without the steadfast trappings of a traditional theatre (or any indication of our purpose), the show was chaos. No-one in the drifting audience (having missed the intro) was quite sure why one actor was behaving so strangely, and why all the other actors seemed in such a hurry to get to the end.
Our drunk was on top form, despite sustaining many significant ouchies to his back as we dragged him repeatedly offstage over brambles, twigs and rocks. Towards the end of the show we acquired some strange drunk audience members who seemed to think they were at an Elizabethan panto, who yelled “stab her, stab her” and “we want rape, we want rape”. Another passer-by stumbled up to me, mid-monologue, and began blearily asking for directions, which I was then forced to give in character. Never has Shakespeare been more shit-faced.
We finally finished the show, and in a moment of thoughtful lucidity, our drunken director said, “Maybe that wasn’t the best idea”. The next day we returned to the amphitheatre and played a brilliantly-received show to another audience of around 650 people.
Arguably, a show should retain its quality whether you’re performing at the National, or in someone’s Gran’s back garden, but when there is a volatile and unpredictable element such as a drunk involved, the thing needs structure in order to work. The show was a valuable learning experience, like the way that when you’re five you have to get your head stuck in a fence before you learn why you shouldn’t put it there. But at least we gave it a go, even if it didn’t come off quite as we hoped. And it’s great to be reminded, when your show is going well, that without all the lights and the wings and the curtains and the set, you’re really just standing in a place, doing a bit of pretending. Ain’t that right, Mariah?