tue 16/07/2024

The Shark Is Broken, New Ambassadors Theatre review - how Spielberg's first blockbuster almost didn't happen | reviews, news & interviews

The Shark Is Broken, New Ambassadors Theatre review - how Spielberg's first blockbuster almost didn't happen

The Shark Is Broken, New Ambassadors Theatre review - how Spielberg's first blockbuster almost didn't happen

This shark-tooth-sharp comedy provides a behind-the-scenes glance at 'Jaws'

Cabin fever: Ian Shaw (Robert Shaw), Liam Murray Scott (Richard Dreyfuss), Demetri Goritsas (Roy Scheider)Helen Maybanks

Jaws was the Moby Dick of late 20th century capitalism, a fantasy about fear and the unknown for a society that had rarely felt more secure and powerful.

Despite the tremors caused by the Watergate scandal and the loss of the Vietnam war, the US would be the wealthiest country in the world for the next three decades and in Jaws Steven Spielberg announced himself as its chief mythmaker.

This shark-tooth-sharp comedy, which has swum relatively seamlessly down to the West End from the 2019 Edinburgh Festival, is an enjoyable three-hander about the near-disasters behind the scenes in the film’s final sequence. We find ourselves trapped on a boat with actors Roy Scheider (Demetri Goritsas), Richard Dreyfuss (Liam Murray Scott) and Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw) as they struggle with ego clashes, cocaine and whisky highs and malfunctioning animatronic sharks.

It’s part of the story of this production that actor and co-writer Ian Shaw is Robert’s real son (Joseph Nixon is the other writer), and he brings him astonishingly to life in his mordant, charismatic performance. With memorable lines like “Fame is the shit of art,” and “Remember what WC Fields said about water? You should avoid it. ‘Fish fuck in it,’” he is the downbeat foil to Scott’s neurotically insecure Dreyfuss and Goritsas’ geeky Scheider.

By the end of filming, Jaws was more than twice over its initial US$3.5m budget, scenes were still being written and the movie as a whole was under threat from the constant shark breakdowns (there were three, all named Bruce after Spielberg’s lawyer). At the age of 27 Spielberg was still an unproven film director; through the interaction between the three characters we see how perilously thin the line was between Jaws being cinema’s first ever blockbuster or sinking deeper than the Mariana Trench.

Guy Masterson’s production is memorably enhanced by Nina Dunn’s video design (pictured below) which projects a shifting sea and vast skies that subtly convey the passage from day to night to day. As Dreyfuss, Shaw and Scheider bicker, the script leans heavily on hindsight to sharpen its humour. At one point Scheider wonders aloud whether there will ever be a more immoral president than Nixon. At another – after explaining that sharks have survived five mass extinction events – he speculates on how climate change might provoke the next.

The three actors complement each other well; Goritsas’s dry delivery provides a good contrast to the more mercurial trajectories of Scott and Shaw. One running joke is that each actor considers himself to be the movie’s star, and the bickering increases with the levels of inebriation. Shaw is the whisky-dependent alcoholic who has hidden bottles liberally around the set. As the inhibitions drop away he hits more and more mercilessly at Dreyfuss’s insecurities – in another joke enhanced by hindsight he drily mocks the actor’s aspirations that he might ever appear in a Shakespeare.

The timing of the transfer of course gives the script new resonance. As the UK sprints ahead of the rest of Europe in Covid infections, we are all grimly aware of Boris Johnson’s blithe comparisons of his attitude to that of Jaws’ profit-over-safety politician Mayor Vaughn. In 1975 it was an example of a cavalier attitude that was upstaged by events and others’ ragged heroism. Today it’s an example of the decadence that makes Western democracy a laughing-stock to those lining up to challenge it.

It brings a strange poignancy to the rantings of three men who, for all their flaws and doubts, were on the brink of extraordinary success. Life, we all now know, wasn’t so bad when all you had to worry about was the wayward, if expensive, antics of some animatronic sharks. Thanks to the writing and performances there are plenty of laughs on offer here. But it’s also somewhat sobering to reflect that the murderous shark was the product of a brief moment when it seemed that individualism and democracy had won; now that Western politics has - well - jumped the shark, who knows what new predators await us?


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