Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the theatre…
The events of the last 18 months would probably not feel too out of place in some Hollywood movie, with one in particular absolutely having a great deal of resonance with our present situation: Jaws.
A silent, unseen threat lurks ominously, lying in wait, ready to strike without warning. Meanwhile, the authority figure overseeing everything tells the population to get out there and enjoy themselves, with the threat’s severity supposedly having been overstated, only for this advice to result in the most tragic of consequences. Sound familiar? Boris Johnson being Photoshopped as the hapless Mayor of Amity is one of the memes which has been particularly prevalent during the pandemic, and with good reason.
Jaws still has a lot of currency, and it feels scarily relevant to this moment. How ironic then, that as the theatres begin to resume performances, after having sat dark for so long, one of the latest shows out of the gate should take us behind the scenes of Steven Spielberg’s iconic box office smash, with it also having a lot of relatable content: three figures trapped together under the same roof for long periods of time over a span of many months, having to find a way to co-exist while things outside of their control play out.
Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon’s play The Shark Is Broken proved to be a sell-out when it was premiered at 2019’s Edinburgh Fringe, and had been due to open at London’s Ambassadors Theatre in May 2020, but real life got in the way, meaning it had to be deferred until now. It relates the tale of what went on during the making of Jaws, when production was stalled at Martha’s Vineyard, as the movie went over schedule and over budget, all thanks to a myriad of different reasons, not least of which was a faulty mechanical shark that had come to be known as Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer.
The script is based on several first-hand accounts, which include The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the film’s screenplay, and the personal journals of Robert Shaw, who portrayed Quint, and happened to be the father of the play’s co-author, Ian Shaw. As a result, The Shark Is Broken is not merely an immaculately-researched piece, but also a deeply personal one, thanks to the involvement of Shaw; the link is forged even more strongly by Shaw also appearing on stage, playing his own father.
Our setting for The Shark Is Broken is the Orca, the vessel of quotably diminutive stature in which Brody, Quint and Hooper undertake their hunt for the Great White which is terrorising the denizens of Amity Island. Actors Roy Scheider (Demitri Goritsas), Richard Dreyfuss (Liam Murray Scott) and Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw) find themselves adrift – figuratively, more than literally – as the shoot spirals out of control, leading to the trio getting under each other’s feet aboard the Orca, not to mention on each other’s nerves.
The Shark Is Broken manages to cover a number of different themes in its 90-minute duration, including a rather biting commentary upon the nature of the movie industry. At the time of Jaws’ release, it redefined the nature of cinema, as it invented the phenomenon that is the summer blockbuster. Its success, however, was by no means assured, as Spielberg only had a tiny handful of pictures under his belt at the time of production, and no real box office success to speak of, so it was a risky venture for everyone involved.
Here, we get an insight into how movies were changing, with the fear that cinema would be dumbed down by features like Jaws, causing lots of knowing laughs from the audience, who – with the gift of hindsight – can see not only what a classic Jaws is now regarded as, but also how big films nowadays are at much greater risk of being lowbrow and facile. We also get a clash of cultures and personalities between our leads, with a stark contrast evident between the English thespianism of Shaw, Scheider’s reflecting a more old school Hollywood, and the American New Wave embodied by Dreyfuss.
Robert Shaw was cut from the same sort of hard drinking and hard living cloth as the likes of Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris or Richard Burton, with Shaw’s alcoholism sitting right at the very core of The Shark Is Broken; with Dreyfuss’ reliance on blasts of Colombian marching powder at the time of filming Jaws, we get to see how two very different people face their own struggles with substance abuse and addiction, as well as the impact that it has upon not only them, but also on those around them, which makes the atmosphere aboard the Orca so highly charged.
The Shark Is Broken also examines the sometimes strained or even totally fractured relationships between fathers and sons, as we get an insight into the backgrounds of Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw, seeing how their experiences helped to shape their lives, rough-hew them how it will. For Ian Shaw, it becomes even more personal, as we get to discover Shaw Snr’s own particular fraternal issues, in addition to finding how Shaw Jnr. has used this experience to learn more about the father he lost at a relatively early age, and who he never really got to know properly.
Robert Shaw is presented as a true force of nature, in turns wearied yet highly volatile, along with borderline maudlin and philosophical; Ian Shaw happens to be the absolute spit of his father, in a way that never stops being breathtaking and uncanny. Goritsas‘ Scheider is a likeable and engaging figure, filled with nuggets of trivia and factoids, but also a calming influence who often has to mediate or referee for his two compatriots. Liam Murray Scott manages to capture the nervous, neurotic and all too often narcotic-fuelled energy of a young, freshman Dreyfuss.
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The stagecraft has to be seen in person to be truly believed and appreciated, as the cutaway of the Orca provides us with a glimpse of just what cramped and close quarters the trio of actors had to endure for such long, tedious stretches during the making of Jaws; literally a case of cabin fever, you can see why they frequently bounced off the walls, and each other. A real triumph here is the imaginative and effective use of rear projection, making you forget the events are taking place on the stage, not the ocean, so convincing is the effect.
The Shark Is Broken takes us on a deep dive into the making – and nearly breaking – of a now-legendary motion picture, exploring the cost in human terms in such a way which is the perfect mix of hilarious and also deeply affecting and highly dramatic. Plaudits of the highest order should absolutely go to all concerned, from director Guy Masterson, to co-writers Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon, the perfectly cast trio bringing the actors to life, and everyone else who has played their part in bringing us such a phenomenal piece of theatre. We’re going to need a bigger ovation.
The Shark Is Broken is currently at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, until 15th January 2022.