It is a great concept. Take a number of classically-trained Shakespearean actors, put on an abridged version of some of the Bard’s most famous works, and then get one of the cast absolutely smashed. It is an idea that Magnificent Bastard Productions has been eating out on for some time, and for good reason too. Shit-Faced Shakespeare brought a number of people who wouldn’t normally head to the theatre on a Friday night to The Warren. And, with it being Brighton, the “shit-faced” in the title does not only refer to the actor, meaning the crowd are up for it from the word go. It is in that rowdy and chaotic atmosphere that Shit-Faced Shakespeare has some truly great and hilarious moments. But when that peters out, the cracks in this brilliant idea start to show.
For this showing, Magnificent Bastard put on The Two Gentlemen of Verona, with one of the two gentlemen – Valentino – as the lucky (or unlucky) actor chosen to drink. Members of the audience are armed with a golden gong to strike when the performer seems to need another drink, while a top hat-wearing, sparkly hot pants-adorned compère tries to keep control of the proceedings. When things go wrong, it is genuinely funny. The crowd cheer at every slurred word, every costume malfunction and each forgotten line. While the actor is clearly hamming it up in parts, the unplanned bits, which even make the other cast members laugh, can be hilarious. The actor dominates the stage with his flailing limbs, loose-fitting shorts, and the occasional pro-Yes speech about the Ireland referendum on same-sex marriage.
However, these funny moments also show the limitations of this idea. There are plenty of scenes that do not include Valentino in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. While the talent of the cast cannot be doubted, the tale of Valentino, Proteus et al. is not what the audience paid to see. Scenes without the drunk actor fall very flat, so much so that audience members were leaving to go for a smoke, checking their phones and even chatting. In reaction to this, the sober cast members then try to bring some comedy into proceedings. But this is widely ignored, even when one (surprisingly dedicated) audience member is turned into Crabs the Dog.
And it is within this conflict that Shit-Faced Shakespeare ultimately lies. When it is good, it is an anarchic, exciting and hilarious experience, unlike anything else you will see. But in those moments it does not work, it becomes laboured and the audience loses interest very fast. Of course, the nature of Magnificent Bastard Productions is that each performance is different. They perform a whole host of plays, with different actors drinking each time. But what can be guaranteed is a performance unlike anything else out there, and one that is worth it for the experience and concept, if not necessarily the execution.
Shit-Faced Shakespeare is playing at The Warren as part of the Brighton Fringe until 29 May. For more information and tickets visit the Brighton Fringe website.