Great white ways | Karen Krizanovich reviews The Shark is Broken


The production of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1970s was problematic, to say the least. The Shark is Broken takes that behind the scenes drama to the stage

Great white ways | Karen Krizanovich reviews <em>The Shark is Broken</em>

There’s a long list of actors who turned down roles in what was called Steven Spielberg’s “fish movie” – Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall and others you won’t know, but who were stars in the 1970s. Apparently a flop in the making, as Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss were finally cast, bad luck seemed to stalk the production.  Conceptually, Jaws was already daring and risky. The crux of the action was shot on the open sea and SFX technicians struggled with the three temperamental mechanical sharks needed to tell the story.

These enormous and costly action props had tested well in freshwater but hated the sea, saltwater leaching into essential pneumatics. Spielberg called them “great white turds” and named all three sharks Bruce after his lawyer Bruce Raynor. In what was a daily 12-hour shooting schedule, a piddly average of four hours was achieved. Seasickness and boredom took its toll as cast and crew spent interminable hours stuck on a boat doing nothing as tensions rose. Production costs ballooned to $9m, $2m over budget.

Enter The Shark Is Broken, which has moved to the Ambassadors in the West End after a sell-out premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. It’s a theatrical take on the turmoil between Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss, trapped together on the fishing boat Orca as they wait to be called to perform. Played respectively by Demetri Goritsas, bespectacled and relaxed, Ian Shaw, the spit of his father as Quint, and Liam Murray Scott as the young defensive marine biologist, we better fasten our seatbelts for a bumpy night. Scheider plays peacemaker between Dreyfuss and Shaw – one plagued with a newcomer’s insecurities and a penchant for cocaine, the other with a star’s insecurities and a taste for alcohol.

Demetri Goritsas and Ian Shaw

Believing what happened in those turbulent hours waiting for the robot sharks lies squarely with co-author Shaw, although The Jaws Log, a diary by Jaws co-writer Carl Gottlieb, has already recounted Dreyfuss and Shaw’s deep dislike for each other. (Gottlieb appears briefly in the film as newspaper editor Ben Meadows.) Shaw had his own memories of visiting his father on set, seeing the prop sharks and watching the film on a tiny screen when he was seven or eight. In the programme, there are many lovely photos but one especially captures that time – him peeking under the covering of one shark, his father at the its head. Robert Shaw’s personal diaries tell of a daily struggle with alcohol. His son’s collection of memory and fact made this play almost inevitable.

The tale, co-written with Joseph Nixon, is made for everyone who loves Jaws. Much as Losey’s film of Don Giovanni showed me the wonder of theatrical opera, The Shark Is Broken is the perfect play for cinema lovers.

Jaws is a film phenomenon. From John Williams’ signature theme to the catchphrase, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” sequels of questionable quality and accusations of making sharks evil – but also spawning endless Shark Weeks on nature channels – Jaws’ cultural impact is indelible. We love its thrills, horror and surprises. We love its underwater trickery, its false moves, its Hitchcockian dolly zoom. We love Oscar-nominated Roy Scheider as the responsible town sheriff and the chippy scientist portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, fresh from his first leading role in Duddy Kravitz.

But mostly we love Robert Shaw. Joining the Royal Shakespeare Company after WWII, Shaw’s intense energy and muscular performances got him nominated for an Oscar in 1966’s A Man for All Seasons and pitted him against James Bond in From Russia With Love (1963). As rough-hewn sea dog Quint, he’s the hot-spot mercenary whose big reveal comes via his famously eerie USS Indianapolis speech.

Ian Shaw, Demetri Goritsas and Liam Murray Scott

My family always said, ‘You look like your dad,’ so it’s been a constant thing,” Shaw said in a recent GQ interview. “But I looked in the mirror and thought: ‘That’s ridiculous. I do look like Quint now.’” (His father died in 1978 at the age of 51.) When Ian quotes the USS Indianapolis speech by his father on his hatred of sharks as they attacked the crewmen of the sinking American warship, the house falls silent. With a tone-perfect delivery, Ian and his father as Quint become one in a delicious moment of suspended time sending shivers down your spine.

The play captures the jostling of schoolboys on a jolly, and it’s not an accident that Shaw gets the best lines. Credit goes to Scott and Goritsas to frame Shaw’s character as well as they do. They are all worried for their careers, even Scheider who shows it least, but all were or would be in the Oscar running at one point or another. There are also plenty of era in-jokes, and mad predictions about Spielberg’s next movies, all of which come true.

Alongside thespian fireworks, Olivier Award-winning Jon Clark’s set design is hypnotic, aiming for realism and helped by designer Duncan Henderson’s boat and Nina Dunn’s video design which includes a fascinating cyc (pronounced psych) that fills the stage. It is the sky and water, changing constantly with the moods of weather and sea. The sound and music design by Adam Cork transforms a static landlocked performance platform into the b-roll of that very boat floating off Martha’s Vineyard.

With the powerful Sonia Friedman Productions now behind it, The Shark Is Broken is playing to packed audiences as it did at the Edinburgh fringe. Doubtless a film of this production is only a ticks away, so see it live, before the play of the film becomes a film once more. C