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The Shark is Broken

By Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon
Ambassadors Theatre, London. Until February 13, 2022
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell
Published on October 21, 2021
thesharkisbroken.com

The Shark is Broken Ian Shaw, Liam Murray Scott and Demetri Goritsas PHOTO: HELEN MAYBANKS

Set in Martha’s Vineyard in 1974 where the shooting of Jaws has been stalled because of foul weather and because ‘Bruce’ the animatronic shark kept malfunctioning, this hit from the 2019 Edinburgh Festival is a witty, behind the scenes drama, set on a small boat.

It centers on the three stars of that film Robert Shaw (played by his son Ian Shaw, who also co-wrote this play), Roy Scheider (Demetri Goritsas) and Richard Dreyfuss (Liam Murray Scott) trapped in a confined space doing what actors do on set - wait around. The small boat is their green room.

It’s a great premise because it combines a pressure cooker quality of a dramatic trio, like in Sartre’s No Exit, with insights into making blockbusters, and that odd mix of stress and tedium that defines film sets.

Of course, at the time, Spielberg was still a rookie director, and the film was running way over its modest budget. Most disagreed with his decision to film on location instead of in a studio ‘tank,’ and also his desire to have a full animatronic shark when that technology was in its infancy.

For Robert Shaw, the film was shaping up to be a “witless mix of Enemy of the People and Moby Dick,” adding that nobody would remember it in 40 years. This script depends perhaps a bit too much on flattering the audience with such knowing hindsight. The dialogue sparkles, though, and Shaw and Nixon fashion some great set pieces, expertly directed by Guy Masterson. [Spoiler alert…] At the height of one row, Shaw menacingly draws a knife from his pocket and after a suitably dramatic pause pulls an apple to peel from the other.

Shaw’s son Ian, as well as being the spitting image of his father at that stage in life, has inherited his father’s charisma and gives a wonderfully rounded and affectionate portrayal of the troubled man. Awash with alcohol, he’s all gasbag thespian, quoting sonnets, and of course he was part of that generation of alcoholic hell raisers (Burton, O’Toole, Harris). At one stage Dreyfuss wittily mocks that persona. Shaw’s focus was his art whereas the youthful Dreyfuss’ concerns were more selfishly pedestrian, obsessed with his career trajectory. Murray Scott brilliantly captures the gnawing neediness of Dreyfuss whose preening hides a deep insecurity. By utter contrast, Goritsas paints Scheider as a solid accountant, just getting on with the job. A solid, gnomic, figure who loves scientific facts and crucially serves as the referee between his feuding companions.

As they kill time with booze and games and stories, conversation ranges from what the film is about to who's the star and, more poignantly, to a series of reflections about their respective and quite different childhoods.

The limitations of the malfunctioning shark in the end worked in Spielberg’s favour. Without the beast being fully present in scenes he had to find other solutions. By building up the audience’s anticipation of the shark he absorbed from Hitchcock the point that the suggestion of the unseen is much more powerful than what is revealed. The film was therefore ‘made’ in the cutting room and blessed with John Williams' perfect score and Verna Fields editing (both won Oscars). Spielberg’s genius was to realize this.

Shaw’s play (which runs 90 minutes straight) is a wonderful insight into both the film and the vicissitudes of the acting profession.

The Shark is Broken Ian Shaw, Liam Murray Scott and Demetri Goritsas PHOTO: HELEN MAYBANKS

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