Alcohol isn’t as prominent a theme in William Shakespeare’s work as love or revenge, but the English playwright’s canon is full of allusions to drink. For instance, Iago declares in Othello that, “Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used.” On the top level of Quinn’s Bar in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen on a weekday evening, Christina Liu, an actress in the Drunk Shakespeare show, is making a concerted effort to uphold this particular maxim of the Bard, except with vodka and tequila instead of wine.
As one of five professional actors in Drunk Shakespeare, it’s Liu’s turn to be the sole performer drinking and serving as ringmaster of the night which very loosely revolves around a staging of Macbeth. The group refers to themselves as The Drunk Shakespeare Society, a “drinking club with a Shakespeare problem”. The tragic exploits of Macbeth, Banquo and Macduff are frequently interrupted by spontaneous improvisation and pop cultural riffs with the audience encouraged to drink while being addressed by the performers in a frenzied, friendly manner.
Liu teased a nerdy-looking audience member for his Anime T-shirt, expressing surprise he didn’t hail from Brooklyn, before casting aspersions on the hipness of my own grey suit. Despite drinking more as the night progressed, Liu managed to retain hold of her Shakespearean senses while engaging in “drunk points of order,” a series of tests which resulted in her performing 10 push-ups and reciting a lengthy soliloquy from Henry V. In turn Liu got other performers to act in the style of different music video genres and at the end of Drunk Shakespeare enticed cast members to strip to their briefs for a dance-off to Michael Jackson’s Beat It.
Many legendary Shakespearean thespians have been indebted to drink. Think of those great British knights from yesteryear Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton or Kevin Spacey recently talking about being drunk while playing Richard III. Tom Hiddleston’s party piece is apparently to recite Shakespeare while he’s on ‘noticeably good form’. But Drunk Shakespeare takes the relationship between booze and the Bard further still. It’s a riotously entertaining mix of high art (despite the interruptions, much of Macbeth does actually get recited) and low comedy. The performance I attended included Justin Bieber jokes, an homage to the disaster movie Independence Day and an inspired three-minute skit in which Macbeth was performed in the style of Matthew McConaughey’s back cinematic catalogue, a sketch members of the company later insisted was improvised.
Drunk Shakespeare had the potential to be tiresome, one-note sub-student sitcom stuff but since it started in late March, the show has been wildly entertaining both devotees of Shakespeare and those whose idea of a horrible night out is a four-hour Hamlet. It’s as though Mark Rylance has stumbled onto the set of TV show TMZ. I found Drunk Shakespeare more fun than the fare from those veteran comedians at the Reduced Shakespeare Company and less of a slog than PunchDrunk’s Macbeth-inspired Sleep No More (“I’ve seen Sleep No More 15 times and my favorite part is when the big hairy guy takes you in that dark closet and teaches you how to be a man,” joked performer Phil Gillen during the show.)
Drunk Shakespeare’s Australian producer Scott Griffin got the idea from a show he saw last summer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “It was called S**tfaced Shakespeare and I talked to the guys and offered to license their show but in the end they didn’t want to,” he says. “But I still wanted to do something with drinking and Shakespeare so I found a directing theater company called Three Day Hangover and we created this thing in the bar.” Griffin and director David Hudson selected 10 young performers from the 1,300 actors who auditioned. Most of the cast have backgrounds in performing Shakespeare and studying his work at drama school. They form two rotating casts who perform the show on alternate nights (the drunken actors on Fridays and Saturdays get a double performance shot).
The cast I saw had impressive chemistry that made it seem like they’ve been doing this since high school. “They’ve bonded and play off each other, “ Griffin says. “I’ve seen this show 58 times and am still enjoying it because between 30% and 50% is improvised every night. The girls had never got their clothes off before- that was the first time tonight- and I just love how it’s always different. The other night one of the cast members got an audience member up, got the shirt off one of the actors, pulled out an electric shaver and shaved a ‘D’ on the actor’s chest hair for Drunk Shakespeare’. You can’t do that every night.”
Performer Whit Leyenberger, who graduated from RADA and who maintains he only acts in off-Broadway Shakespeare, says the show offers a relief from the eat-your-greens approach that many productions apply to the Bard. “I’m so sick of earnest Shakespeare, it’s not as much fun. This is engaging the audience on their ground, making references they’d understand, just like Shakespeare would make references to Greek myths.” But just as controversy continues to surround whether Shakespeare wrote his plays--or if, as argued in Roland Emmerich’s recent film Anonymous, the works were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford--producer Griffin is taking flak from online commenters for running with S**tfaced Shakespeare’s idea.
While I certainly had more fun with this take on Macbeth than I did watching Jack O’Brien’s production starring Ethan Hawke that was staged at Lincoln Center last winter, I’m not convinced Drunk Shakespeare’s free-flowing frivolity is what Will would have wanted.
Fellow cast member Lindsey Hope Pearlman strongly disagrees: “We’re not dishonoring the Bard! What better way to celebrate such a massive, iconic body of work than to send it up around a beer and in the same moment play the darkest, most truthful bit of tragic text and then flip it around to make the audience laugh.”
Griffin says he has plans to expand the repertoire beyond Macbeth and for Drunk Shakespeare to become a more permanent New York fixture. “We’ve got people who are coming back and trying to see all the drunk actors so we’re thinking we can extend because people seem to like it,” he says. “I’d love for this to become a stable thing and have a lot of different Shakespeare plays and people can come here and hang out.”
As for the drunken actor, an inebriated, though not inarticulate, Christina Liu was proud that she struck a blow for empowerment by stripping to her Spanx and encouraging her fellow actors to disrobe. “An agenda of mine was to be free as a drunk actor and take my clothes off without being sexualized,” she says, “As a woman I wanted to be able to feel empowered and feel good in my body without being diminished or policed or sexualized.” She duly brought the conversation back to the Bard’s perennial narrative power: “Regardless of the drunken debauchery, we tell a good story as well as riling people up.”