Back in Shakespeare’s day, the water was so dirty that alcohol was the preferred drink of choice, meaning that there’s every chance actors performed his work half-cut. Shit-Faced Shakespeare are taking the Bard’s work back it’s roots, with one member of the cast getting tipsy during each performance. We spoke to members Saul Barron, Lucy Norris and Beth-Louise Priestly about their boozy exploits ahead of a performance at the Nottingham Playhouse...
How did you come up with the idea?
Saul: Louise and Chris came up with the idea when they were drunk. The Independent called us one-day, as they were doing an article about theatres and musical festivals, and Chris told them about the idea. Originally, they never thought they’d actually do it, as it was one of those little ideas you just write down on a napkin. But because they’d mentioned it to such a big newspaper, they felt like they had to!
What is it about Shakespeare specifically that lends itself to be performed drunk?
Lucy: Because people don’t speak that way any more, it’s really obvious when someone is changing the plot, improvising or messing things up. If you were doing any other modern play, you wouldn’t necessarily know that people were doing that. Shakespeare’s work plays on the extremes of the human condition, and those emotions become more heightened when you’re drunk.
So one of you gets drunk before each performance. How do you decide who it’s going to be?
Beth: Originally, we drew names out of a hat to see who the drunk one was going to be, because there was only going to be a few shows, and everybody wanted to be the drunk. But these days taking care of our bodies and livers is important, so we have a strict rota to make sure the same person isn't drinking three nights in a row.
How do you make sure it doesn't go too far?
Lucy: We have a show-runner, whose job is to look after the drunk during each performance. The drunk isn't allowed to pour their own drink because the more drunk they are, the more excitable they get and, as a result, the bigger their measurements become. Each time they finish a drink, they hand it to the show-runner who decides whether they have another one or not.
We drink four hours before the show, but that person is dedicated to the drunk; they make sure they eat during that four hours, as well as ensuring that they’re drinking steadily, rather than downing pints. It’s become quite scientific over the years in order for it to work and be sustainable. We want them to be happy, excitable, giddy, silly and making mistakes when they go on stage, not falling over, tired or asleep.
Shakespeare’s work plays on the extremes of the human condition, and those emotions become more heightened when you’re drunk
What surprises has the ‘drunk’ character brought to performances?
Beth: In the early days we did have a few incidents. During the first ever Shit-Faced show, our drinker only got ten minutes into the play before passing out - which was one of the reasons it became successful so quickly. She’d been plied with too much booze, we’d never done the show before and it was more of a group of friends than a professional theatre company. But it was at a music festival, and a rumour went round that a girl had died on stage.
Saul: The next night it was packed out because everyone had heard that the show killed people. But she was great the next day, she was absolutely fine, she got over her hangover and was desperate to go back on stage and do it justice. And so, the next night it was Saul who got drunk and he was fantastic, even singing along to Britney Spears.
What’s been a stand-out moment?
Lucy: One of the times we did Romeo and Juliet, which is by far the most well-known Shakespeare play, Stacey played the nurse and decided to kill Romeo just before the bedroom scene with Romeo and Juliet’s last night together. She then decided that an audience member was going to play Romeo instead. The actor playing Romeo went backstage and asked if he should come back as a ghost, but I said he shouldn’t. This poor audience member had to play Romeo for the last half an hour of the show with Stacey basically telling him what to do. It was one of the best shows that I have ever been in because nobody could keep it together. That poor guy didn't know what to do.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Lucy: It’s our first show with an interval that we are doing on tour, which we are really looking forward to. Keeping the drunk happy and awake off-stage is a whole different game for us. We've got brand new things that we have introduced, and there's gonna be a few new games for the audience members. For anyone who has seen us before, it's going to be a whole new experience, and we are excited to play with it.
Shit-Faced Shakespeare are performing at Nottingham Playhouse on Saturday 5 October