Tax Deductible joins a growing group of companies who bring a sense of improvisation and chance to their performances of Shakespeare. In The Factory’s Hamlet, the actors learnt multiple parts and then drew straws in front of the audience to decide which character they would play. Filter’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream mixed up Shakespearean text with modern stand-up, complete with contemporary cultural references.
For Tax Deductible the concept is simple: before the show begins one actor gets drunk and, during the show, drinks more in response to audience requests. Their one-hour Dream, starting at 10.20pm, competes with the late-night comedy pack who tend to take over from theatre companies at this time, but it absolutely holds its own.
It’s a given that the sight of a drunk person valiantly trying and failing to complete a task which requires a degree of physical and mental coordination will have considerable comedy mileage – and Stacey Norris’s drunken attempts to play Dream‘s Helena were hilarious. On their first entry the lovers perform a dance, and Norris’s clumsy and uncoordinated version became an exercise in pure clowning.
Bold yet hopelessly garbled stabs at her lines provoked giggles from both her and the audience. The laughter is not all reliant on the ‘shit-faced’ actor though; the production sparks into life when the sober actors continue as normal alongside their inebriated colleague. John Sebastian’s earnest Demetrius was the straight man to Norris’s ever-disintegrating Helena.
When she grabbed a pie from an audience member enjoying a late-night snack, Lysander (Lewis Ironside) was quick to improvise, creating a droll pie/eye rhyming couplet. Andy McSorley’s Puck provides a warm and witty presence; he works the audience well and – in a show which is not reliant on Shakespeare’s words for much of its comedy – still manages to generate laughter from the text.
With the Factory and Filter productions, improvisation exposes the process of theatre-making and the demands of Shakespearean performance. Shit-Faced Shakespeare, as much as any one show can in an hour, shares that quality. Although Norris frequently lost her lines and her balance, often she retained the thinking or feeling behind a line or scene. When Demetrius warns Helena that the ‘rich worth of her virginity’ is at risk in the dark forest, she informed the audience ‘in that line, he threatened me with rape’. Later on, she gestured at the painted cloths which represented the Athenian forest, telling the audience, “there’s no rules with this performance, except DON’T TOUCH THE SET!” And although she could not deliver some lines, she embodied the feelings: pushing and hitting at Demetrius, then when the plot resolved, placidly hugging him. Oddly as her lines and inhibitions fell away, something of the crafting and making of the production was revealed.
As with all shows reliant on improvisation, surprise and chance, Shit-Faced Shakespeare has the potential to miss the mark. Another actor might provide a very different kind of drunk or generate a less enjoyable performance dynamic. Like looking after a drunk friend for a little too long, intoxicated hilarity could wear thin – the hour running time is spot on. But this is an entertaining, irreverent and warm show which made me laugh a lot and think a little, which is not bad for late-night on the Fringe.