Stage Door Review

The Shark is Broken

Thursday, October 6, 2022

✭✭

by Ian Shaw & Joseph Nixon, directed by Guy Masterson

Mirvish Productions, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto

September 30-November 6, 2022

Robert Shaw: “We need a bigger boat”

The Shark is Broken is currently making its North American premiere having garnered rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe and then on the West End where its run was held over. Based on the transfer from the West End playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, it is impossible to fathom what could possibly have generated such positive feeling toward the play: “Wildly entertaining ... deliriously funny” (What’s on Stage), “Funny, quirky and poignant” (The Times), “Absolutely spellbinding” (Daily Mail), “Sensational fun” (Daily Express). The play I saw at the Royal Alex was not entertaining, funny, poignant or spellbinding. Instead, it was extraordinarily boring and as inconsequential as its subject matter.

That subject happens to be the making of the movie Jaws (1975) and more specifically how the movie’s three stars pass the time while they are waiting for Bruce, the mechanical shark and star of the movie, to be repaired. The three actors are Robert Shaw (who plays Quint, a professional shark hunter), Richard Dreyfuss (who plays Matt Hooper, an oceanographer) and Roy Scheider (who plays Martin Brody, the local police chief). In the play co-author Ian Shaw, Robert Shaw’s son, plays his father, Liam Murray Scoot plays Dreyfuss and Demetri Goritsas plays Scheider.

All the action takes place on Quint’s boat, the Orca, shown in cross-section. This is the show’s primary inconsistency. If a malfunction with a prop causes the cast for a movie to wait for hours, or in this case day, for a repair, the cast does not wait on the set but in their dressing-rooms or trailers. Playwrights Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon have had their three characters meet on set first, so the three can meet at all and second, so they can meet somewhere more interesting than a dressing-room. Here the three get to converse in Duncan Henderson’s realistic-looking  boat backed by Nina Dunn’s video projections of the sea and sky made interesting by passing clouds, seagulls and once a thunderstorm.

Thus, the whole set-up of the play is artificial just as Shaw and Nixon’s dialogue is pure fiction. Anyone who goes to The Shark is Broken hoping to gain an insight into the behind-the-scenes making of Jaws, will find that there is more information in the programme or online than there is in anything the three characters say.

About the three actors we also learn nothing. Dreyfuss, then aged 28, is portrayed as extremely neurotic. One moment he has doubts about whether he is any good, the next he thinks he should try his hand at Shakespeare. Robert Shaw constantly twits Dreyfuss about how ignorant and immature he is.  Given how Ian Shaw and Nixon have written the part, we see nothing to contradict Robert Shaw’s negative view of Dreyfuss.

In contrast, Robert Shaw, then aged 48, is portrayed as a wise and experienced old man, an alcoholic to be sure, but a man with a love of language. The play will remind people that Robert Shaw was also a writer who wrote plays and a trilogy of novels, the most famous of which is The Man in the Glass Booth (1967), which Shaw then turned into a stage play. Throughout the play Shaw decries acting as a pointless profession and the sorry state of modern movie-making while he keeps promising himself to return to writing.

Ian Shaw and Nixon’s script is so focussed on contrasting Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, they seem to forget to give Roy Scheider a personality. His main role seems to be to read the newspaper and thus orient us as to the place (Martha’s Vineyard, MA) and the period (May to October 1974) through weather reports and events in the real world such as Nixon’s resignation in August and the ongoing war in Vietnam. Scheider’s other role is as peacemaker between Dreyfuss and Shaw whose mutual verbal insults eventually lead to blows. The flare-ups between Dreyfuss and Shaw happen so often and so predictably they soon become tedious.

The steady stream of commonplaces about the film, the 1970s and the actors show that Ian Shaw and Nixon had really nothing to say about Jaws or anything else. The epitome of this lack of invention comes when Robert Shaw suggests that all three play the pub game “shove ha’penny”, in which players flick a coin across a table to see how far they can get without going over the edge. Since the audience cannot see the top of the table, all we get are the actors’ reactions to their shots. Like the entire play, the scene has no function. It does not advance the action. It does not tell us anything about the characters. And it tells us nothing about their situation.

What humour there is in the play is based almost entirely on our judging what characters say with our 21st-century hindsight. Scheider says that there will never be a US president as immoral as Nixon. (Ha ha, we know better.) Dreyfuss wonders, anachronistically, if they will make a sequel, to which Scheider says no, there’s nothing more to say. (But then there were three sequels.) Scheider says he will never act in a movie sequel. (But then he does in Jaws 2 in 1978.)

Jaws and Star Wars (1977) changed Hollywood by creating expectations for big-budget sequels, formerly the realm of low-budget movie series like Bulldog Drummond (1923-67), Charlie Chan (1926-49), Philo Vance (1929-47), Tarzan (1932-1970), Jungle Jim (1948-56), Godzilla (1954-75), Carry On (1958-92), a realm that television would later take over. Therefore, it’s highly anachronistic when Robert Shaw speculates to the knowing audience that in the future there will only be sequels and prequels and remakes and remakes of sequels and prequels. 

Director Guy Masterson makes the most of paltry material he has and so does the cast. Demetri Goritsas, though given nothing of interest to say, does an excellent job of suggesting that there is more to Scheider than Scheider lets on, as if his perpetually calm, assured demeanour hides greater depths. Liam Murray Scott’s Dreyfuss’s egocentricity and multiple neuroses start to get on our nerves as much as they do Robert Shaw’s. Whereas Goritsas and Ian Shaw have sunk into their roles, Scott still seems to be trying too hard to act his.

Robert Shaw is clearly the central figure of the play and Ian Shaw and Nixon’s script can be seen primarily as an homage by the son to his father even though Ian was only 9 when his father died in 1978. The hard-living, hard-drinking old rogue with a strain of poetry in him seems to be a feature the British love (viz. Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole) and it is that stereotype that Ian Shaw plays up in the script and as an actor. Robert Shaw delivering Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 with his gravelly voice is the highpoint of the show even while its highlights the kind of rich language we have been missing.

The play has three scenes of filming the same scene. The first time Robert Shaw says he can’t do it because it’s a load of rubbish. The second time he can’t do it because he’s falling down drunk. The third time when Robert Shaw does the scene perfectly the playwrights want us to view it as some kind of triumph. If getting you lines right is a triumph, the bar for praise has been set rather low. We mostly wonder why Steven Spielberg has hired a drunk (Shaw) and a drug-taking imbecile (Dreyfuss) for such an action movie.

In short, there is no reason whatsoever that anyone should see The Shark is Broken. Not even Jaws superfans will get anything out of it. Besides this, potential audience members should know that because all the action occurs within the cabin of an unmoving set of a boat, the only movement (other than that of the fake seagulls) takes place in the centre third of the stage. Seats outside the middle section will make an unrewarding play feel even more unpleasant.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Demetri Goritsas as Roy Schneider, Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw and Liam Murray Scott as Richard Dreyfuss; Liam Murray Scott as Richard Dreyfuss, Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw and Demetri Goritsas as Roy Schneider playing “shove ha’penny”.  © 2022 Helen Maybanks.

For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.