OK, hands up, I confess I didn’t see Jaws at the cinema the first time round in 1975, or indeed when it first aired on the TV, but no mid-century kid could deny the impact of that movie on popular culture. Whether it’s the iconic image from the poster of the shark about to strike or John Williams’ unforgettable score, the film has imprinted itself as the architype of the big beast summer hit. For Mrs M, on the other hand, it’s ingrained in her cultural DNA, having sneaked in underage to catch it on release and watched it regularly ever since – even going so far as to endure the awful sequels if only to remind her how good the original is. Thanks to her, I’ve become a convert, consuming not only re-runs of the original movie but also documentaries about the production process and a fantastic coffee table book of behind the scenes photos I unearthed in the Forbidden Planet store. In particular, I’ve been fascinated by the story of the USS Indianapolis, written into the film to provide added background to the eccentric big game fisherman character, Quint. This wasn’t part of Peter Benchley’s original book and, frustrated by multiple rewrites that didn’t flow in performance, actor Robert Shaw playing Quint took the scene away to work on himself. With interest in the story of the Indianapolis fuelled by a visit to the US Navy museum in New York, and with a direct connection to the atomic bomb programme which is another mid-century topic that absorbs us, I’ve found myself seeking out the full story of the fate of the ship and her crew – dramatically summarized by Shaw on screen but no less tragic in detail.
But back to the film itself, we were intrigued to read about a play premiering at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe exploring the story behind the making of the film and written by and featuring Robert Shaw’s son, Ian. The title, ‘The Shark is Broken’ alludes to the constant cry on set as the complex mechanical shark failed regularly, sending the production soaring over budget and schedule, leaving the actors with much time to kill and – ironically – forcing producer Steven Spielberg to make the threat of the shark an unseen one for large parts of the film and consequently infinitely more menacing. We wondered if the play would major on the frustrations of coaxing a combination of hydraulics, tube and fake shark skin into action, and how on earth that could work on a small stage. The reviews seemed good, though, and when it transferred to a small theatre in the centre of London, this seemed an ideal opportunity to revive our London life, catch up with some friends, and scratch the Jaws itch with what seemed to be a short run and unrepeatable production.
First impressions were excellent – a capacity audience and an open stage featuring a ‘cutaway’ fishing boat Orca with lots of detail that demonstrated careful study of the original film version. The programme quickly confirmed the premise – this was strictly a three hander featuring the characters of Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider. Cast in the film as Quint, marine biologist Matt Hooper and Chief of Police Martin Brody respectively, the play revolved around their off screen, out of character, relationships as they sat out the long gaps between filming during the scenes based on the Orca while the technicians grappled with the recalcitrant mechanical shark. Based on Shaw’s journals, a picture was painted of the animosity between the classically-trained, heavy-drinking Brit Shaw, and the up and coming young American Dreyfuss, relying on this movie to give him his big break. Scheider, himself similarly hoping for a boost to his career, found himself the peacemaker between them, trying to ensure that the tension which worked well on screen did not escalate into something damaging to an already struggling production.
It’s hard to describe how a production like this worked so well. In essence, nothing happened: days passed, the characters discussed, debated, and argued – about the film itself, about their careers and their aspirations. Occasionally one would leave, summoned by some offstage crew member, until eventually filming wrapped and they were left wondering whether this shark would turn out monster hit or turkey. Much of the secret was in the writing by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon, which managed to combine deep authenticity in the characters with a grasp of the detail of the film’s production that satisfied even the most ardent fan (including a shooting star crossing the back of the set at just the right moment). That, however, would have been nothing without credibility in the actors themselves; for Shaw, the expectations were highest of course, but that set a touch challenge for the other two actors – Liam Murray Scott as Dreyfuss and Demetri Goritsas as Scheider – who didn’t have the benefit of DNA and growing up with the original to work from. It worked, though, with mannerisms and inflection leaving all bar those in the front couple of rows able to suspend reality and believe in the characters without descending into some kind of Jaws-themed ‘Stars in Your Eyes’.
And the Indianapolis bit? I wondered what sort of mention it would get in comparison to the infamous non-performing shark, but wasn’t disappointed. First reference came with Shaw trying out an earlier draft and complaining at how badly it flowed. It cropped up again as he tried to rehearse it after a liquid breakfast and fluffed the lines. Then the end of filming denouement arrived, the lights went down, and I found myself thinking ‘wouldn’t it be great if they did the Indianapolis scene in full as a closer’… and they promptly did. With lights dimmed and working in a spotlight, Ian Shaw became his father delivering the monologue – every gesture, every intonation, every expression. Cue thunderous applause from an audience who, like us, had clearly got everything they’d come for.
The icing on the cake came when, from a little shop just across the road from the stage door, we spotted the cast emerging for a break before the evening performance. They graciously stopped to chat to assembled audience members, signed programmes, posed for photos, and displayed a knowledge of the detail behind the movie that stood up well to probing from some obvious Jaws devotees. We were particularly interested to chat to Demetri, who’d joined the cast after the Edinburgh run and who admitted he’d not seen the movie before going up for the part. He’d clearly been given a deep immersion in the Jaws canon, though, and revealed that amongst the movie paraphernalia the director had amassed to bring the original movie back to life was a copy of the book on sharks that Chief Brody can be seen studying as he contemplates his adversary.
So, deeply authentic, but with an artistic integrity that lifts it above mere fandom. The shark may be broken, but the play definitely works. Catch it while you can…
A link to the production website is here.