Ian Shaw hunts for the father who hunted for a great white shark in ‘Jaws’ in the stage comedy ‘The Shark Is Broken’
“The Shark Is Broken,” a three-hander stage comedy depicting the behind-the-scenes drama on the set of “Jaws,” was borne out of a search for answers — not unlike the main characters’ quest in the 1975 movie thriller.
But while the film’s protagonists, Chief Brody, Quint and Matt Hooper, were searching for the man-eating great white shark terrorizing a quiet seaside town, the play’s co-writer, Ian Shaw, was searching for clues that would offer a glimpse into the life of his father, Robert Shaw.
The English actor was acclaimed for his career in Shakespearean classics and his turn in “Jaws” as Quint, the maniacal shark hunter. Robert, however, died three years after the release of that blockbuster film. Ian was just eight.
Now, some four decades later, Shaw is stepping into the shoes of his late father, quite literally, in “The Shark Is Broken,” his play co-written with Joseph Nixon. It’s set to open at the Royal Alexandra Theatre later this month, following acclaimed runs in London’s West End and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Shaw stars as his father in the show, which dramatizes the behind-the-scenes tensions between the “Jaws” leading men: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider (played by Demetri Goritsas, originally from British Columbia) and Richard Dreyfuss (played by Liam Murray Scott), with whom Shaw shared an epic and infamous feud. The chaotic film set was the site of unfathomable cost overruns, malfunctioning shark replicas and near catastrophic delays.
“I suppose the play was borne out of a series of thoughts I had about my dad and ‘Jaws,’” said Shaw, who has always been a fan of the movie and even accompanied his father to set during filming.
The slice-of-life stage comedy follows the three men as they navigate their relationships with each other along with their own personal struggles: Dreyfuss and his drug problems, Shaw’s alcoholism and Scheider’s earnest attempts to hold the motley crew together throughout their time on set.
The kernel of the idea that led to the show first came to Shaw when his sister found their dad’s drinking diary. “It was a very poignant read because it was a portrait of a man who was struggling to break the habit of a lifetime,” said Shaw.
When he read the journal in 2017, Shaw was around the same age as his father when he was filming the blockbuster shark movie. At the time, he was even sporting a moustache, just like his dad when he played Quint.
“I was trying to understand who my dad was,” said Shaw. “And the drinking diary was just another piece of the puzzle.”
After reading the diary, Shaw began digging up old press clippings and recordings of his father on set, anything that could offer some insight into his father’s time on the project.
But the play almost never came to be. Shaw was reluctant, he recounted, to follow through and bring the idea to life onstage.
“I thought it would be the height of folly,” said Shaw. “It felt quite dangerous to be writing about my dad’s alcoholism and it seemed fraught with potential embarrassment.”
But Shaw credits co-writer Nixon, along with his producers and director Guy Masterson, for “dragging” the story out of him.
“I grieved for my father” while writing the play, said Shaw. “I thought, essentially, that my grief process lasted a decade after he died, but there was some left in the process of writing the show. So it was a bit cathartic.”
Though the play began as an exploration of this father-son relationship and is, perhaps, most poignant because of the fact Shaw plays his father (he bears a striking resemblance to his dad, down to the moustache and ocean blue eyes), “The Shark Is Broken” has grown beyond a show focused solely on those themes.
“It’s about these three men and their worlds, which crossed over for that period of time: 16 weeks during the making of ‘Jaws,’” said Masterson. “And they were incarcerated together on that boat for eight weeks filming (at sea) and they had to get to know each other very, very well.”
“The Shark Is Broken,” which is eyeing a potential North American tour and Broadway transfer, isn’t the only stage production inspired by the behind-the-scenes happenings of “Jaws.”
“Bruce,” a new musical named after the mechanical shark in the film, premiered in Seattle earlier this year to tepid reviews. It was directed and choreographed by Stratford Festival favourite Donna Feore and based on Carl Gottlieb’s behind-the-scenes tell-all “The Jaws Log,” a resource that Shaw and Nixon also drew on for their play.
“We’re very nostalgic about certain things and there’s a whole group of people who are very nostalgic about that particular film,” said Shaw. “So I can understand why people are creating all sorts of spinoffs about it.”
But Shaw said his project feels different — and always will be.
“For me, it’s very personal, obviously, because of my dad,” he said. “‘Jaws’ is the backdrop. It’s the soil for the other stuff that interests me that people maybe don’t quite know about.”
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