August 8, 2016 | Robyn Pritzker
In the depths of a giant plastic purple cow on a rainy August night in Edinburgh, a few hundred people were reminded what Shakespearean comedy is really about. Measure for Measure, referenced as one of the Bard’s ‘problem plays’ for at least a century, is a bizarre tale of moralism and the many layers of justice distribution that manifest through society and through many faiths.  Based around a Viennese duke, his proxy Angelo, Juliet and Claudio (an unmarried couple expecting a child), and a group of colourful ensemble characters who occupy a variety of stations from houses of pleasure to a nunnery, the show’s moral ambiguity and lack of clear genre has caused critics of Measure for Measure trouble for centuries. Yet one act in the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe has, perhaps accidentally, breathed new life into this complex and often confusing story. Boldly titled Shit-Faced Shakespeare, this production of Measure for Measure is an excellent and hilarious reworking of a play with which some modern audiences might otherwise have trouble connecting.
Lacking the clear protagonists, antagonists, or love stories of other Shakespearean tales likeMacbeth, The Tempest, King Lear, or Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure is a mashup of tragicomic relationships that are often hard to root for. The crucial difference in Shit-Faced Shakespeare is that in this abridged performance by just six classically-trained actors, each night a different cast member must perform the show staggeringly drunk. This idea would give obvious pause to many festival-goers, but the show has an infrastructure of rules and precautions that both engage the audience and maintain a sense of order in what might otherwise be beer-fuelled chaos. The genius in this show is subtle, but it explains why the company has been successful enough to perform in locations across the world: Shit-Faced Shakespeare democratises classical theatre the way Shakespeare himself did. The contrast between five exemplary actors and a drunk one who is constantly paraphrasing and breaking the fourth wall reminds us that the bawdiness and physicality of traditional Shakespearean comedy is what makes it so timeless. There are moments when the sober actors onstage truly shine, and even when faced with drunken nonsense their improvisational skills are showcased by their ability to redirect the dialogue (and the plot) back to where it should be. The ease of the mash-up between highbrow and lowbrow is part of what has made Shakespeare’s work so everlasting: it appeals to those who appreciate the subtler creative choices, and those who just love a good laugh or cry. The drunken actor represents the typical audience member in a meaningful but comical way, as one who often struggles to keep up with the dialogue, but is unerringly devoted to having a good time and participating in the telling of an intriguing story.
Shit-Faced Shakespeare caters to those who appreciate and understand the structure and humour of a classic playwright, while still taking care to incorporate those unfamiliar with how to watch and listen to the Bard’s work. One of the more moving soliloquies in Measure for Measure is when Isabella, soon to become a nun, debates the pros and cons of saving a life versus saving a soul. A standout performance in the show I saw (the cast rotates nightly), the soliloquy kept its original form. Audience members familiar with iambic pentameter and Shakespearean turnphrasery were treated to a beautiful, if short-lived, look into what the play has been for hundreds of years, before being pulled back into the gimmick of the show by a drunk man sauntering in stage left carrying a pool noodle as a makeshift sword. Those who may have missed any key points or feel left behind needn’t fear: in all performances, there is a guarantee of a drunken explanation of key plot points. Whether this is planned or not is still a mystery, but in the skillful way the cast combines traditional language and ridiculous physical and verbal comedy provided by gin and beer, Shit-Faced Shakespeare reworks the original motivations of Elizabethan drama for a modern audience, (almost) always staying true to the original intentions. Shakespeare was an innovator, the representative figure of his literary era, and in this Fringe show the cornerstones of his oeuvre are used to comment on the very way contemporary audiences experience literary classics. The bawdy physical comedy of Shit-Faced Shakespeare is an impeccable and celebratory update of the role the original work held in its own time.
In a longer thinkpiece, you could use these performances as examples of the pros and cons of taking liberties with adaptation and modern retellings, but for now, a few simple questions can be drawn from a discussion of this company’s refreshed perspective on a classic: If one of the most successful Fringe performances of Shakespeare every year includes one roaringly drunk actor, is there a correct way to appreciate classic literature? How much responsibility do we all have, as researchers or cultural producers and consumers, to make sure the works that have informed our literary history are kept unchanged, and how much ought we work to keep these famous tales and stories relevant and contemporary? As we move through time, should we bring our histories into the present or leave them as gateways to the past? Perhaps we needn’t choose, and shows like this one can be examples of how to honour our literary traditions while respecting the changing interests of modern audiences.
For ticket information at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival please click here.
Robyn is a graduate of McGill University and the University of Edinburgh. Her research involves the Victorian print trade, women, authorship, and digital humanities. Otherwise, Robyn is an avid ghost story reader with heterochromia and a penchant for the outdoors.
Article edited by Amadeus Chen, Ryan Edwards, and Matthew Tibble.
1. Boas, F.S. Shakespeare and his Predecessors. London: John Murray, 1910.