Shit-Faced Shakespeare have only come to tragedy belatedly. Their regular stock-and-trade since their inception in 2010 has been comedy. And since Shit-Faced Shakespeare is, above all, a comedy show, this would seem to make sense. Shakespeare’s comedies already have jokes. They already have a high level of bawdiness, innuendo and bickering, all of which can be readily hammed up for late-night crowds.
Comedies also seem essential for Shit-Faced’s main conceit: each night only four-fifths of the cast are sober. Unless the drunk actor is actually on-stage, the audience is surely just watching Shakespeare. And if it’s only the drunk actor on-stage, you may not see any Shakespeare at all. Either way, you’re only getting half of what you paid for. The comedies offer ensemble casts – lots of characters on-stage – without the single protagonist of tragedy stealing all the stage time with their selfish soliloquies.
Turns out, though, that all of these assumptions are wrong. Hamlet is the best Shit-Faced production yet. It’s both the funniest show they’ve done so far and – for much the same reasons – the most dramaturgically interesting.
There’s some theoretical stuff that might be useful here. The Shakespearean scholar Stephen Purcell, in his book Popular Shakespeare: Simulation and Subversion on the Modern Stage distinguishes between ‘official’ Shakespeare and ‘unofficial’ Shakespeare: the bits that audiences feel are meant to be there, that belong ‘properly’ somehow to the Shakespearean text; and the bits that audiences feel do not really belong, that invade from outside.
It’s the ways that audiences recognise the ‘official’ elements of Hamlet that make this production so interesting. Arguably, Hamlet is the most official ‘official’ Shakespeare that there is: ask people to quote Shakespeare, it’ll be ‘To be or not to be’; ask people to draw a Shakespearean actor, it’s likely they’ll be holding a skull. Even in these images, we can see the ways that officialness becomes routine becomes ritual. And what do we call highly ritualistic comedic theatre? That’s right. Shitfaced Shakespeare: Hamlet often feels like Hamlet: The Pantomime.
When Hamlet starts ‘To be or not to be’, the crowd whoop. Nothing funny is happening yet, it’s just that everyone loves a catchphrase. There’s something about these soliloquies that seems more ‘official’ than they normally would. Most modern productions steer softly away from a traditional rendition of key speeches, trying to find a ‘different’ take that makes their version distinctive. This Hamlet leans the other way. The first soliloquy – ‘Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt…’ – in particular is big, clear, sincere and beautifully intoned by tonight’s Hamlet, James Murfit.
Shit-Faced’s productions have always claimed this kind of official space – with its painted 2D set-like sets, ye olde costume-like costumes. It’s spent eight years with its compere-of-misrule (tonight, Flora Sowerby) telling each new audience that its actors are ‘classically trained Shakespearean actors’ because these are the most ‘official’ actor-like actors that there are. They’ve always done Shakespeare with a capital S. New audiences might be surprised by how fluent and (sometimes) weighty this production is, the famous scenes and speeches generally served well by Lewis Ironside’s direction. As always, his slick cut of the script is enormously helpful: characters and scenes are remarkably well delineated, plot always certain, scenes re-ordered and re-stitched seamlessly. Hamlet fans will spot that Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and parts of Polonius’ role are all amalgamated into Laertes’ character, but you won’t ever see the glue.
It’s also the officialness of these scenes that makes them fall heavier under the influence of the rogue performer: Yorick’s skull goes crashing into a cup of beer; Ophelia’s funeral descends into farce; ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ is interrupted by the players setting the stage for the play-within-Hamlet The Murder of Gonzago. The more ‘official’ something seems, the more fun it is to mess with.
This feeling is also more acutely created in tragic drama because tragedies are about inevitability. They move in one direction: towards death. But when one actor has different ideas, nothing is inevitable. When tonight’s drunk Gertrude (Briony Rawle) refuses to die, this is far funnier – and far more compelling – than a similar refusal in a comedy could ever be. “I think I’m going to be OK actually,” says Gertrude. It’s hard to be surprised by a tragedy’s ending, but just for tonight, Gertrude survives her poisoning and crowns Horatio king. Even the actors weren’t expecting it.
Inevitability actually spins two kinds of ‘official’ Hamlet against each other. Because from one direction, Hamlet is the most ‘official’ tragedy, it might appear monolithic and unmovable. But from another, Hamlet is the least inevitable tragedy. It takes the prince ages to decide to kill Claudius and even longer to actually do it. Shakespeare already delays the ending, in ways that themselves can be seen as comedic.
Many critics (for instance, Anne Barton) have noted a surfeit of comedic tropes in the play: from the prince’s own witticisms, through the abundant use of euphemism and innuendo (not all of which, surprising, survive Ironside’s cut), to the number of times characters hide behind an arras to spy on each other. Whereas Paapa Essiedu’s brilliantly sardonic, art-prankster Hamlet at the RSC recently played heavily on the verbal comedy, Ironside’s script and direction tends more towards the situational. He stuffs even more characters behind the arras, so that someone’s bound to fall over. Every scene that could ever resemble a powder keg of comedic potential is stuffed with as much powder as possible.
Whatever goes wrong, one of the joys of Shit-Faced Shakespeare is the re-negotiation of the unofficial into the official: seeing the sober actors improvise around the interruptions so that the show goes on. Like most improv, the straighter the cast play it, the funnier it is. Beth-Louise Priestley (who gives a storming performance as Horatio, Ophelia and a player) and a remarkably deadpan Murfit are especially adept at segueing Rawle’s unofficial whimsy back into the plot’s officially agreed momentum. When Hamlet discovers Gertrude, Claudius and Laertes hidden clumsily behind an arras, he tells them all to get to a nunnery and storms out much as normal, not missing a beat.
Purcell contends that the ‘‘contamination’ of Shakespeare’s text with alien, ‘unofficial’ words will inevitably lead, intentionally or otherwise, to the delivery of some kind of commentary on the text’. So it does. Rawle’s Gertrude is able to lurch in and out of the official text – and from this woozy hinterland can say the dramaturgically unsayable. She demands of Hamlet’s friend Laertes (doing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s usual bit), “couldn’t you just get him in a quiet place without other people and ask him what was wrong?” It’s a good question.
The unofficial resonates with the official in ways that are less profound but equally funny. Tonight’s Gertrude has a particular penchant for stealing other characters’ hats. When Ophelia describes seeing “Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced / No hat upon his head”, we all know who must have stolen it. At its most gloriously silly, official Hamlet provides a striking frame within which some very unofficial things can happen. One of the players (Rawle again) tells Hamlet, “we don’t know The Murder of Gonzago, we only know Cats,” before they end up performing their version of Beauty and the Beast, all the time resplendent in costume designer Lorna Jean Connell’s colourful tunics and long-nosed masks, and doing their best attempts at Early Modern English.
Tragedy offers the Shit-Faced company a wider distance between the official and unofficial, and with it a bigger playground to stomp around in. This production of Hamlet doesn’t just contrast official and unofficial, high and low, inside and out – it mixes them in the same glass. And then downs it, whilst everyone applauds.
Shit-Faced Shakespeare: Hamlet is on until 27 August 2018 at Underbelly. Click here for more details.