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Festival Reviews: Shakespearean Influences

Michael Cox reviews Shit-Faced Shakespeare and William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged).

With the world celebrating his 400th Deathiversary*, Shakespeare certainly seems to be popping up a lot in the theatre. And while there are many productions of Shakespearean things, there are two companies that seem to have a lot of momentum behind them in their Shakespearean shenanigans.

Take Shit-Faced Shakespeare (****), a high-concept that returns for another year on the Fringe. The idea is this: take a group of classically trained actors, rehearse them in an hour-long version of a Shakespearean play…and make sure one actor is completely off their head for each performance.

For this year, the chosen play is Measure for Measure. Not the most obvious play to choose—but actually fitting when you consider its themes of law and order being used to regulate forms of debauchery. Even more fitting is that for the production that was reviewed (on August 13th), the actor playing Angelo was the inebriated performer.

This in itself is nice irony. Angelo is a righteous hypocrite who is given the temporary power to govern by the Duke—who claims to be off on pilgrimage but is in fact disguised as a friar and wants to see what happens when he isn't around. Enforcing a law that’s on the books but hasn’t been implemented, Angelo sentences Claudio to death for getting his girlfriend, Juliet, pregnant out of wedlock. However, he offers Isabella, Claudio’s sister who’s about to become a nun, the chance to save his life—if she agrees to have sex with him.

So, having such a complicated character be played by an intoxicated actor is indeed quite funny. But then again, having any of the other main characters drunk (including the Duke, soon-to-be nun Isabella or pregnant Juliet) offers many possible unhinged shenanigans as well.

There are some problems with the whole set-up. The audience have come to watch a drunken actor, not a Shakespearean play. On the night of review, the audience seemed bored whenever the sober actors were playing their roles. There’s also the question of the intoxicated actor: how much of it is an act? Is part of the audition process making sure a potential actor isn't a ‘mean drunk’? And just how sober are the other actors?

But when it comes to comedy, there really is only one question: is it funny? To this, I have to fess up: I laughed frequently, and many times quite loudly. And unlike many people sitting next to me, I was sober. So, in the end, there really is one fair verdict: Shit-Faced Shakespeare is an absolute scream.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company have a proud tradition on the Fringe: many of their shows have had their British (if not their non-American world premieres) here. And as the company are currently enjoying their 35th anniversary, it seems fitting that they return to their original Shakespearean roots.

So it's an absolute joy to report that William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) (****) is a wonderful delight. The set-up: while touring England, the company discovered an old manuscript that ended up being…well, as the title says. Oddly, Shakespeare already knew all the characters he was going to use but managed to shoehorn them all into a very long (over 100 hours!) narrative. For brevity’s sake, we are not getting the full version but…well, as the title says.

Stupid? Of course, but it's a hook that is effective enough to justify doing a remix of Shakespeare’s plots and characters. There is joy in seeing Puck and Ariel battle it out as magical foes, or seeing what happens when Kate and Beatrice meet Juliet in the woods and try teaching her how to be feisty.

The problem anything that has another source as its crux is whether audiences not familiar with the original can enjoy themselves. This is where Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (co-writers, co-directors and 2/3 of the acting company here) succeed: their patchwork script actually makes sense. Shakespearean references act as Easter eggs—in-jokes that mostly work but don’t hinder those who haven’t a clue what Cardenio is or why Pinocchio is onstage.

What the production becomes, in the end, is not just a celebration of Shakespeare but of theatricality. Martin, Tichenor and Teddy Spencer are terrific fun to watch—they’re cheeky, hilarious and usually have at least one eye cocked in a ‘can you believe we’re about to get away with this’ grin. There might be a few too many Americanisms that will fly over British audiences’ heads, but it is a consistently funny production that both ribs and celebrates Shakespeare without demanding a slavish appreciation of his work.

*Deathiversary was used by the RSC in their programme and podcast. It is used here out of respect of their cleverness.

Shit-Faced Shakespeare is part of Underbelly’s programme. William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) is part of the Pleasance programme. Check websites for further details.

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