I had the fairly disorientating experience of seeing two performances back to back half an hour apart in the Leicester Square Theatre on Friday night: Shit-faced Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing and six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald in concert. One of those events was an extraordinary showcase of dazzling artistry, whimsicality, humility, and intelligence. I’m here to review the other one.
The central (and sole) conceit of Shit-faced Shakespeare, which has toured the UK and US since 2010, is pretty straightforward: each night, one cast member gets (allegedly) wildly wasted before stumbling through a six-actor Shakespeare play, condensed to the point of incoherence. This season it’s Much Ado About Nothing on the chopping block, and Rob Smythson as Claudio received the special honour at the performance in question.
Shit-faced Shakespeare might be funnier if the sober actors attempted to play Shakespeare with a straight face. Since the play quickly devolves into a full company improv show, with actors making up lines and scenes based on Smythson’s non sequiturs, they might as well all be drunk (or just host what would be an ultimately unimpressive evening of improv while sober). Only one such moment of extemporizing demonstrated quick wit: when Smythson (for reasons far too complicated to explain) demanded, “Is Snoop Dogg in the house?,” John Sebastian Mitton as former soldier Don John (here a conflation of the play’s Don Pedro and Don John) responded gravely, without missing a beat, “Nay, he died in the war.”
Shit-faced Shakespeare might also be funnier if Much Ado About Nothing wasn’t already so funny. Neither the audience nor the cast has any interest in paying attention to the humour of the text so dozens of sizzling zingers and brilliant ripostes go by without being heard, let alone appreciated. A shit-faced Macbeth, or, for those with a darker sense of comedy, Titus Andronicus, might provide some genuine contrast between the seriousness of the plays and the volatility of the inebriated actor. There’s no reason why alcohol shouldn’t flow freely in the world of Much Ado so there’s nothing particularly jarring about a tipsy Claudio. (Frankly, I suspect more of Shit-faced Shakespeare’s “unexpected” incidents are scripted than the company wants us to believe: is it really likely that Smythson just happened to forget his line before the phrase “sober judgment,” requiring his co-stars to finish that all-too-appropriate sentence for him?)
Finally, Shit-faced Shakespeare might be funnier if you had the sense that these were supremely talented performers testing the physiological limits of their abilities. Take away the tipple and there’s not much left, on either the comedy or classical training fronts. As it happens, I know a performer nearby with impeccable comic timing as well as rigorous classical training. In other words, sign me up for Shit-faced Audra McDonald.
Shit-faced Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing is playing at the Leicester Square Theatre until September 16.