Shit-Faced Shakespeare & Accessible Literature

On August 11th 2022, a friend and I embarked on a trip to London, and as a spontaneous, belated birthday present, we bought tickets to Shit-Faced Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, at the recommendation of her brother.

Leicester Square Theatre was a comfortable space, with warm lighting and an easy atmosphere in the waiting area before the audience could take their seats. As someone who is rather tall, I often struggle for leg room at productions on the West End and was delighted to see that there was enough room for me to sit comfortably, instead of having to stretch my legs out into the aisle, like I have had to do at other theatres. However, it is important to note that there are several flights of stairs between the entrance and the stage, which could prove an issue if you struggle with mobility.

We arrived at the theatre half an hour before the show began, excited to see the show, which was apparently, different every single time, no matter how many times you see it. We later learned why: the concept of Shit-Faced Shakespeare itself is simple: there are five actors, and a marshal to enforce health and safety, and keep the story going. Four of these five classically trained actors were to follow the script, and one would go along with the plot, drunk, and the role of the drunk cast member changes with each show.

The plot of Shit-Faced Shakespeare’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is much shorter than the original Elizabethan play. This is done by reducing the characters in the cast and having the actors play several characters. For example, in the version my friend and I saw, the cast of five actors, played a total of eight characters, with Jessica Brindle playing Juliet, Richard Hughes playing Romeo, Louise Lee, playing Benvolio and Juliet’s Nurse, David Ellis playing Father Lawrence and Mercutio, and John Mitton playing the roles of Tybalt and Lord Capulet.

Subsequently, the absence of certain characters, such as Roslyn, who was merely named, and Lady Capulet, who had been completely killed off in a passing statement, meant that there were fewer scenes that needed to be present in the production. Instead of filling the time with these scenes, improvisations ruled over the plot of the original story; thus allowing plenty of opportunities to add new lore to the classic Shakespearian tale. With prompt scene changes, and an intimate sense of suspended disbelief the abridged version becomes a comedy, thus completely separating itself from the original. Instead, The witty quips about the nature of the times, such as the young couple’s ages, as well as amazing physical comedy, such as the use of inflatables instead of stage weapons, lest anyone be injured, had the play resemble a pantomime, which was greatly enhanced by the involvement of the audience, in both encouraging the marshal to provide more alcohol for the drunk cast member, and with a lucky member of the audience getting to join the production and improvise as well, in the role of Paris.

A highlight of the show was the nature of improvisations required by all the actors. For example, Our drunk cast member, Mitton, made a passing statement about the ill-fate of Lady Capulet, instead living out a tragic existence locked away in a cage, something the rest of the cast had to roll with and incorporate in various scenes, such as Louise Lee, as the nurse, informing Juliet, after her night together with Romeo, on her supposed wedding day with Paris, that it wasn’t long after Juliet was born that she was locked away in the cage.

I loved that the cast had to think on their feet, whilst being mindful of the time limitations of the show itself, with their improvisation. When the battle between Mercutio and Tybalt was taking too long, Mercutio, played by David Ellis, collapsed to the floor, claiming he had died of internal bleeding, which was subsequently added in as a running joke as Juliet stabbed herself, and yet, there seemed to be no blood.

Shit-Faced Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet provided a freeform opportunity to make this classic tale far more accessible to the audience, who may not be as aware of nuanced elements of the story: from our drunk actor, John Mitton declaring that Stage Left and Stage Right was a cul-de-sac, and he was subsequently going round in circles, when encountering Benvolio and Mercutio, to crude jokes about Catholic Priests abusing their power, to provide context on the religious climate of Verona at the time. These instances made me remember something important about the collective works of Shakespeare:

Shakespeare wasn’t inherently pretentious – his humour was for the peasants, with the equivalent of characters flipping each other off in the street, in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet. No, it is the scholars that have iconised him that have created this false pretense about Shakespeare. His plays at the Globe in London were for peasants and the rich to enjoy in Tandem.

This was something I really valued in the production. I look forward to the opportunity to watch this show, or any other plays this company put on.

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