Review: To Beer Or Not To Beer, That Is The Question

We need to talk about William. Shakespeare, that is. He does get a look in during this rumbustious, fast-paced, heavily edited and alcoholic 70-minute sprint through the Bard’s comedy. But not much.

While his words feature and are played accurately, they act mainly as a useful device to deliver some plot and keep the play on track in between the outbreaks of ad libbed cabaret and comedy.

The play is boiled down to five characters - the mismatched couples Hermia and Demetrius and Lysander and Helena, as well the mischievous Puck - who are all played by fully-trained Shakespearean actors.

But one of them has spent the previous four hours getting tanked up. The show’s compère displays the wreckage of the boozing - a bottle of Pinot Grigio and four cans of lager drunk by Lysander on the evening in question.

The audience is invited to take part: two members are handed a gong or a trumpet to bash or blow if (when) they feel that the actor is in any danger of sobering up (they both do).

A third is given a sick bucket in case the actor has had too much to drink. Apparently that’s never been needed and despite the threat, the front rows are told to be honoured they are in the “vom zone”.

What follows are highly comic interactions as the four sober actors try to keep the show on the road while the drunk interrupts, forgets his lines, and behaves inappropriately with his colleagues (male and female).

Much of the humour comes from the adept way that the sober actors succeed in keeping the play on track and time while improvising their script in Shakespearean dialogue. As one actress, addressed by her real first name, demurely enquires of Lysander: “But whom is this Louise of whom you speak so fair?”

A fast-moving mix of Whose Line is It Anyway, Monty Python and Fawlty Towers mixed with a fair dose of Burlesque cabaret, it is somehow a quintessentially British take on the country’s most celebrated playwright whose 400th birthday happens to fall this year.

What would William think?

The decision to knock down the fourth wall to the audience makes the show more pantomime than theatre. Perhaps a good clue comes in the star-spangled Barnum-style circus ringmaster outfit that the compere wears.

Lysander may be drunk or acting but it’s not important. The best depiction of a drunk in film was by Richard E Grant, a lifelong teetotaller, in the epic Withnail & I. And actor Briony Rawle from the Magnificent Bastard cast tells Disclaimer that one actor is indeed fully and genuinely inebriated.

The obvious question is whether it has any artistic merit. Doubtless many Shakespeare aficionados would be horror struck at watching a version of Midsummer Night that misses out the dream sequence with Titania, Bottom and the donkey.

Yet on the night Disclaimer went, the audience member in the next-door seat enthusiastically but perfectly mouthed all the script that the sober actors managed to deliver in between interruptions.

More importantly it introduces Shakespeare to an audience who may not have heard or read it since school and would run a mile from the stiff, shirt and tie atmosphere that tends to accompany most current productions.

The cast clearly love Shakespeare’s work and want the audience to enjoy the poetry of his words. As the drunk Lysander yells proudly at the audience after managing to get through a whole section of script without error: “That’s Shakespeare, you mother f**kers!”

And maybe the way it is staged more closely reflects how Tudor audiences would have watched Shakespeare. Records from the time talk of rowdy audiences who would move around, buy food and beer in the theatre, clap for the hero, boo the villain, and cheer for the special effects.

Leicester Square Theatre is blessed with two bars set alongside the seats so some of the audience were probably as squiffy as Lysander.

What would William think? He would undoubtedly be delighted that people were still paying to watch his plays and that they were having a good time doing so and not sitting in their seats like stuffed shirts. What he would make of one of the actors being drunk is anyone’s guess.

Magnificent Bastard’s Sh!t-faced Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on at the Leicester Square Theatre on Thursdays Fridays and Saturdays until 27 August 2016


More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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