You may not think one bottle of Prosecco and another of Sauvignon Blanc would have much effect on a grown man. Upon seeing the empty bottles drunk dry by one sorry cast member, the unimpressed response from the audience suggested that wasn’t even enough for a woman to get drunk. Yet, last Saturday night, actor David Ellis proved everyone wrong, as Magnificent Bastards’ production of Romeo and Juliet became ‘The Mercutio Show’.
If you walk into the Udderbelly theatre expecting a night of sophistication and traditional Shakespeare, you’re in the wrong place (the title alone should suggest that). With one cast member chosen to get ‘shit-faced’ the day of the performance – also bevvied during the show if showing signs of sobering up – neither the cast nor audience are aware of what the night will bring. So as soon as Ellis’ Mercutio swaggered onto the stage, interrupting the key opening monologue and distracting our attention with a heart-shaped balloon stolen from the previous show, the audience were clearly in for a treat. Cue fumbling the first line and “dribbling on his thumb”, and what followed was a night of disorderly entertainment.
Naturally, every performance of Shit-faced Shakespeare is different, so its success primarily lies on how well the actor fares whilst intoxicated. Frankly, I would attend lectures held by an inebriated Ellis, following his hysterical comments on the Bard’s classic work throughout the play. Throughout, Ellis criticises Shakespeare’s nuances and ‘humour’, whilst also providing a running commentary on the questionable relationship between the 15- and 13-year-old couple. He also takes the time to complain about certain creative decisions – bemoaning some props being rejected for ‘not being fireproof’ – directing his disapproval at the director sitting in the audience. Ellis’ unpredictable nature peaks when Mercutio miraculously doesn’t die from his mortal wounds, and has to be literally dragged off the stage by his fellow cast members.
Everything Ellis does, the sober cast members take in their stride. They noticeably have to work much harder than during last year’s show, struggling to contain the immortal Mercutio and the bible-bashing Friar Lawrence (Ellis plays the Friar as well, in case that wasn’t mentioned). Romeo humbly loses an arm in a lightsaber accident, and Juliet eventually succumbs to Lawrence’s desire to be with her instead after Ellis seemingly forgets which character he is playing. They are all excellent at adapting the script, showing off their skills as improvisers.
So, despite all their hard work, the person who lets down Magnificent Bastards’ production is ironically the Bard himself. Romeo and Juliet features many scenes where the protagonists are alone onstage (or at least should be). Shakespeare’s romantic scenes find themselves uninteresting when neither of the actors are inebriated, causing a lull in the raucous atmosphere. Moreover, by allowing Mercutio/Friar to be the ‘shit-faced’ characters, it means that the audience may find themselves craving the drunken debauchery instead of the soppy love scenes.
That said, Shit-faced Shakespeare was a night to remember. It will be a struggle to find a swordfight featuring a double-ended dildo anywhere else.
Shit-faced Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet
Underbelly, George Square (Venue 300)
Until 28th August
Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge