The Shark is Broken at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: worth the hype
Perhaps the most critically and commercially successful production at this year’s festival, The Shark is Broken has sold out almost every single performance in its large venue for the whole festival, garnered a list of superlative descriptions that’d make any other show green with envy, and been talked about across the whole city. Hell, there are more flyerers and performances targeting the ‘shark queue’ than there are on the nearby major street.
I have to say, the hype is most definitely justified. Resurrecting the spirit of his father, the legendary Robert Shaw, Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon have scripted a shapeshifting, wonderful piece of work set during the filming of Spielberg’s Jaws – a legendarily strenuous shoot.
Aside from Ian Shaw’s explainable resemblance to his father, what is at first most striking about The Shark is Broken is just how much everyone else resembles their real-life analogues as well. Duncan Henderson is the spitting image of Roy Schneider and Liam Murray Scott is an effective Richard Dreyfuss lookalike. One wonders whether it’d be physically possible to find a better cast to play these characters – we’re instantly catapulted into the mid-70’s, even from an Edinburgh university lecture theatre.
When the play begins, we’re faced by the instantly recognisable Orca table, and that even-more recognisable theme tune…. Shooting the film has already drawn on for months and the cast are being pushed to breaking point. Spielberg’s insistence on realism – actually filming his work at sea – has caused scores of problems, most notably that the technicians can’t figure out how to make a mechanical shark that actually works. In this creative limbo, the relationship between Shaw, Dreyfuss and Schneider becomes more personal and begins to fracture under pressure and monotony.
The three men represent people at three very different stages of their careers: Dreyfuss is really just starting out, still drawn-in by the prospect of money, fame, and women; Schneider is at the mid-point in his creative life, and appears to have found some peace and balance in his existence; Shaw is now at the end of his career, and has appeared both in critically-acclaimed works and commercial successes – he yearns to move on from the acting world to writing. Naturally, with these three strong personalities and very different worldviews, there’s a spectacular culture clash in the room.
Initially, The Shark is Broken lays down the jokes thick and fast. Most of the humour – which is genuinely very funny – comes from Shaw and Schneider roasting Dreyfuss’s youthful naivety, or from Shaw’s borderline self-parodic ‘old dog’ identity, which the others struggle to place as a performance or genuine personality. There are also scores of laughs that come from the way in which the cast rip on films they see as forgettable nonsense, when, in fact, 40 years later they’ve become ‘classics’.
Altogether, this is an intelligent, referential script that absolutely trusts the audience and their cultural knowledge. At several points, I was actually surprised by just how much faith Shaw and Nixon have put in us. A younger, less culturally-aware audience is likely to be blindsided by a lot of these jokes – that said, the crowd for this 11am show about the cast of Jaws is almost comically OAP (a flyerer outside likens it to a ‘nursing home’). Aside from a ‘there’ll be no more controversial president than Nixon’ joke – which I’ve now heard so many times in theatrical productions and films that it’s beginning to get a bit annoying – this is a pitch-perfect piece of writing.
Indeed, that becomes even truer when the piece moves away – almost without you noticing it – from outright laugh-out-loud comedy to something more meditative and profound. An exploration of parents, upbringings, and just what it means to be an actor, The Shark is Broken packs more interesting ideas and tonal shifts into its brief 75-minute runtime than we’re used to seeing in much longer pieces of work.
As delirium sets in, and litres of alcohol are consumed, the barriers each character has psychologically built begin to collapse, giving us sight of the real people underneath – their fragility, their insecurities, their reasons for the acting they do off-set when they construct narratives for the public. Because we’ve fallen so in love with these characters and this piece of work from the comedy of its first half, the introspective questioning of its second hits about twice as hard as it might’ve.
Ultimately, this feels like a piece of prestige theatre that’s almost too big for the Fringe, despite its relatively small scale. I wonder if, in the frenzy to praise The Shark is Broken to the heavens, some have been a little too enthusiastic to proclaim it as a masterpiece. Although it’s a truly impressive, enjoyable piece of work, there is a lingering sense that it’s not especially memorable and there is a lack of those spine-tingling moments that signify a spectacular show. Still, I loved it – I get the sense that everyone else loves it too, maybe even more than I did. You can’t get a ticket to see it (unless you risk the returns queue) because its sold out, but fear not, I’m absolutely sure this show will find it’s way to a much bigger theatre in a town near you very soon.