It’s Act I of Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo is already drunk. Swaying slightly, he walks over to Juliet, opens his mouth, and recites his famous speech about “pilgrim hands” without missing a single line. He turns to the audience and grins. “Betcha thought I couldn’t handle that,” he slurs.
A British theatre company called Magnificent Bastard Productions had an idea for a new take on William Shakespeare 11 years ago. Five actors would give an entirely sincere performance of a Shakespeare play, with a slight twist: One random cast member would get very, very drunk. Since then, the Magnificent Bastards have performed their Shit-faced Shakespeare act at fringe festivals and theaters across the United Kingdom and the United States, downing an estimated 1,400 cans of beer onstage in the process. More improv than high theater, Shit-faced Shakespeare is the perfect production for people who are serious about theatre … but not that serious.
Almost two years ago, Shit-faced Shakespeare debuted at The Rockwell, a tiny theater in Davis Square. The group has been racking up the laughs (and the empty cans) ever since. The Rockwell is the perfect space for a production in which swordfights, both scripted and impromptu, often spill offstage. The theater is underground and meets the bare minimum of what this Shakespearean theatre troupe needs for a performance: a few rows of seats, an empty space for a stage, and a well-stocked bar.
The bar is convenient, since the alcohol flows freely before, during, and after a typical Shit-faced Shakespeare performance. Before the show, couples on dates, groups of college students, and a handful of pierced and tattooed hipsters sip their beers and select their seats with the deliberation usually reserved for choosing splash zone seats at a dolphin show.
You can understand their caution. At The Rockwell, there’s no raised stage to separate the audience from the actors. The air in the theater is charged with anticipation that anything could happen on stage and spill over into the front row. It frequently does.
For Lewis Ironside, the co-founder of Magnificent Bastard Productions and a Shit-faced Shakespeare actor himself, this is the best part of the show.
“Because every single night is completely different, there is that genuinely wild card element about it,” Lewis said. “I’ve never had a job like it.”
There’s not much of an imaginary “fourth wall” to separate the actors from audience either, especially after Romeo walks onstage. He’s been selected to get drunk for tonight’s performance and, after eight beers and an inch-and-a-half of Gosling’s dark rum, he’s starting to feel it. He looks and sounds like a drunk Michael Cera, with the same sleepy, unfocused eyes and reedy voice. The alcohol almost makes him more believable as Romeo, amplifying and exaggerating the character’s lovestruck dreaminess.
The four other actors perform alongside their tipsy comrade with the deft skill of teammates on a professional sports team, gently steering Romeo back onstage when he veers into the audience or spinning his drunken ramblings into the story.
“You basically have to justify or build into the world of the play almost anything the drunk is doing,” Ironside said. “It’s definitely more difficult to be the sober performers — the drunk is a real holiday.”
But thanks to their skill, it’s not jarring when the fourth wall breaks—it’s part of the fun. One Shit-faced Shakespeare cast member, who prefers not to be named, described the sober actors as the “bridge between the audience and the drunk actor.” It’s the most compelling part of the production, they say. Ironside would agree.
“People will laugh at a drunk person for about 10 minutes, and after that it’s really not funny,” Ironside said. “What you need are those sober actors reacting to that in order to make it funny.”
The hour-long performance is perfectly timed: just enough Shakespeare and alcohol to complement each other before the gimmick gets stale. And in another balancing act, the play manages to satisfy both die-hard Shakespeare fans and those who are completely baffled by iambic pentameter.
“It’s partially poking fun at what Shakespeare’s done, but also with a deep love,” Ironside said.
For theatergoers who expected drunken farce, Ironside notes that this performance actually highlights the actors’ nuance and skill. Instead of a straightforward production, each performer must cope with the “impossible problem” of ensuring that the show goes on when one of their colleagues is drunk. It’s an impossible problem that this group manages with skill and humor.
By the end of the play, you’ll be cheering and raising your glass to poor Romeo, as he says with a lopsided grin, “It’s better shit-faced, don’t you think?”
Featured Image Courtesy of Shit Faced Shakespeare