Even the Bard’s staunchest fans admit that ‘Shakespeare comedy’ may be an oxymoron. That’s the assumption of the touring company Shit-Faced Shakespeare, which produces the plays as adventures in boozy slapstick. The audience is encouraged to swig along too. I saw their hooch-assisted Much Ado. The colourful costumes looked a bit am-dram, perhaps deliberately, and the stage was decorated with cheap flapping drapes on which gargoyles, arches and other medieval devices had been painted. Enter a larky compère in puffy breeches carrying a horn. ‘PARP PARP’. He announced that a member of the cast had just consumed two beers and half a litre of gin in the dressing room. Which is quite a lot. To protect us from the drunkard’s vomit, the compère handed a silver basin to a spectator in the centre of row A. ‘If any of you gets covered in chunks it’s this lady’s responsibility.’ The play began with a cast of five and a heavily edited text.
At first we had to guess which actor was blotto because everyone on stage tippled from beer bottles to confuse us. It wasn’t long before Claudio (James Murfitt) betrayed himself by saying, ‘Some crazy stuff’s going to happen later.’ The compère reappeared with his horn,‘PARP PARP’, and deprived Claudio of his sword for ‘safety’ reasons. It was replaced with an inflatable toy weapon. Claudio examined it and asked the crowd how he could win a swordfight armed with ‘a blow-up Fred Flintstone club’. The play proceeded in this ramshackle fashion with the storyline constantly undercut and mocked by the lumbering drunk. Accidentally flecking his betrothed with spittle during a slurred speech, he improvised an aside. ‘Sorry, Hero. Didn’t mean to spit on you. Got a lot more of that to look forward to when we’re married.’
The madcap atmosphere infected the audience and the bearer of the silver basin began to heckle the actors and to produce great honks of attention-seeking laughter. This earned her a stern rebuke from the compère. ‘You’re in a theatre, madam, not a rugby club.’
One felt sorry for Saul Marron (Benedick) and Stacey Norris (Beatrice) playing these great roles in the West End while being jeered at by a prankster on stage and by restive members of a tipsy crowd. Murfitt, a charming young actor, only once allowed his drunken interventions to become boorish. Abandoning Hero at the altar, he gave himself the exit line, ‘I’m going to eat some cake and have a big, sad wank.’ Thereafter other players referred to him as ‘wanking Claudio’. This suggested an element of forethought to the extemporisations. And I began wonder if Claudio was genuinely drunk. The compère, during his preamble, had vowed to supply more alcohol if the inebriate betrayed any sign of soberness. And he fulfilled this promise on two occasions by rushing on stage with his horn, ‘PARP PARP’, and crying ‘health and safety’, ironically. Then he opened a bottle of lager, which…