Shakespeare in a bar

Backroom Shakespeare Project
Christopher Costello and Victoria Blade, Macbeth. Photo courtesy of the Back Room Shakespeare Project.

There’s a newish trend in Shakespeare performance, which is to bring the alcohol consumed by audiences in the taverns and inn yards where his plays were first performed, on to the stage to be consumed by the performers themselves.

I’m talking of the companies that perform S—t-Faced Shakespeare (which originated in the UK but now holds performances in Boston, Austin, Atlanta, and the Twin Cities), and the less alliterative but equally descriptive Drunk Shakespeare, which currently has performances in both New York and Chicago. The modus operandi of these two shows is to have one actor consume a considerable amount of alcohol and then, while under the influence (and supposedly the supervision of his or her fellows), attempt to perform a previously rehearsed role in a Shakespeare play. (A “health warning” posted on the Drunk Shakespeare website proclaims “We do not condone excessive drinking. Our drunk actors are on a regular rotation system and carefully monitored at all times. Drinking in moderation can be fun. Drinking to excess can ruin your life. We promote healthy drinking.”)

What the warning on the Drunk Shakespeare website doesn’t say is that watching drunk people attempt to not be drunk is hysterical…or can be…sometimes. For this admittedly biased spectator, the S—t-Faced Shakespeare performance I saw fell between two stools: the actor wasn’t drunk enough to be really out of control, and in that context, through no fault of the actors, the performance of Shakespeare wasn’t compelling and served no end other than to stall until the next drunken and hopefully high-larious interruption.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, however, I confess that the largely college-aged audience I saw it with at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe loved it. And were most of the people in that late-night audience drinking? You bet they were.)

Both these shows address an unspoken desire, I think, to return to an authentically Shakespearean (you’ll pardon the pun) spirit. We’ve seen the films and the stage productions where taverns are filled with rowdy extras or drunken clowns who provide comic relief to the main, frequently tragic, action. In plays depicting scheming royals, interchangeable lords, and magical sprites, all of whom are speaking words that can sometimes be challenging, the behavior of a bunch of drunks seems an accurate depiction of a more rowdy era that’s of a piece with Shakespeare’s robust language and at the same time feels timeless and reassuringly familiar.

More successful, though, at returning us to a semblance of Shakespeare’s time and place is the work of Chicago’s Back Room Shakespeare Project. Co-created by Samuel Taylor and Kelley Ristow, the Project began with the belief that “Shakespeare’s plays don’t belong in our polite, delicate theatres” and that in fact, “Shakespeare’s theatre was a goddam madhouse, and that somewhere along the way we all lost sight of that.” The Project attempts to bridge the distance between Shakespeare’s theatre and our own by performing his plays while adhering to four basic rules: Serious Actors, No Director, One Rehearsal, and — most importantly — At a Bar.

The above quotes and rules are set out in Sam Taylor’s slim little volume, “My Life with the Shakespeare Cult,” a fabulously readable cri de couer and call to arms that describes, in language both swaggering and provocative, a theatrical aesthetic that most closely resembles the context in which Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. As Taylor describes it:

The theatre Shakespeare built was a … riot. A hoot. It was full of unruly drunks whose other big hobby was watching dogs fight bears. Today, we stick his plays in theatres that are stuffy, mannered, and boring as hell, with audiences that are sober, polite, and prone to naps. This is madness.

Backroom Shakespeare Project
Emily Shain, Caroline Rau, and Miriam Mintz, Macbeth. Photo courtesy of the Back Room Shakespeare Project

I’ve seen the Project in action — I even played the Duke and Prince of Aragon in their production of The Merchant of Venice — but their production of Othello was revelatory. Performed in a Chicago tavern that gave itself over to the Project on an otherwise slow Monday night, the event began with the evening’s captains encouraging the audience to continue eating and drinking during the performance, to get up and use the restroom if necessary, to cross the playing space (such as it was) if they had to, to laugh and cheer and boo the actors if they felt so moved. Audience members were brought up to play a version of Blind Man’s Bluff in a sort of modern equivalent of bear-baiting. Smartphone use — texting, tweeting, posting on social media — was not only not prohibited but actually encouraged.

Then the play proper began, with Desdemona’s father Brabantio standing up on the bar and yelling at the drunken and exuberant Iago and Roderigo and their fellows —and by extension, all the members of the audience — to be quiet in the street because they are “full of …distempering draughts!” Urged on by the actors playing Iago and Roderigo, the audience booed the old man, refusing to be quieted. From the opening moments, the audience was an active participant in the play’s events.

Then, as the action of the play progressed, what began as a kind of rowdy party of people witnessing a bit of play-acting became a true descent into tragedy. When Emilia cleared bottles and glasses and pushed audience members away from their table so that she could make Desdemona’s “bed,” mutterings of  “oh, s—t” around the audience revealed we all understood what was about to happen. And finally, when Othello strangled Desdemona, as Taylor describes it:

It wasn’t like watching the inevitable conclusion of the play, it was like watching a murder. It was awkward and intimate. And everyone at the bar was a part of it. (Emphasis mine.)

Web pages are filled with quotes from Shakespeare regarding alcohol and its effects. But it’s not just the drinks themselves that create an atmosphere; it’s the rooms in which those drinks are consumed. No one’s arguing that Shakespeare should only forever more be performed in taverns, but there’s a case to be made that less-formal performance spaces, ones that acknowledge the audience and remember that Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters who speak directly to us, are perhaps closer in spirit to Shakespeare’s time and place. No matter what you’re drinking.