Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

New Auckland play Thomus uses language of Shakespeare

Ash Jones (left) has written a contemporary NZ play using verse writing methods from Shakespeare's era. He's pictured with Arlo Gibson.
Ash Jones (left) has written a contemporary NZ play using verse writing methods from Shakespeare's era. He's pictured with Arlo Gibson.

Twelve weeks, two season extensions, 128 mostly sold-out performances attended by 100,000 (including 20,000 school students) and 10 productions at a replica of the second Globe Theatre: if Auckland's Pop-up Globe demonstrated anything, it's that 400 years after his death there is still an appetite for William Shakespeare's writing.

Now a team of Auckland theatre-makers hope we're still hungry. Led by first-time scriptwriter and director Ash Jones they're bringing Thomus to town - a new work written entirely in "iambic pentameter", the rhythm of writing Shakespeare used in his plays.

But Thomus is a contemporary coming-of-age tale told from the point of view of a New Zealand teenager (played by Milo Cawthorne) in his final year of high school and dealing with the adult unknown. His parents' marriage looks set to implode; Thomus wants to keep them together - should he act or are things better left to run their natural course?

Describing his work as psycho-thriller, Jones says he didn't intend to take one of Shakespeare's play and modernise it; the goal was always to write a contemporary play about current issues using the language of the Bard.

It's taken him about six years, after being inspired by appearing in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, to write, refine and test out his script. He was urged into finishing by actor Sam Bunkall (Boyd Rolleston on Shortland Street).

"I wanted to write something that gave the actors a chance to immerse themselves in their characters in a very emotional way and you tend to get that with Shakespeare. You're playing with huge emotional 'scapes' using language that makes it easier for them to speak their hearts and minds. We Kiwis don't tend to do that very often, so I wanted the combination of a recognisable local world where all the characters do speak their hearts and minds. "

Jones has 10 years' theatre experience, most recently with fellow actor Nisha Madhan's Town Centre, an Auckland collective of theatre makers. As well as Cawthorne, Thomus features Amelia Reynolds, Arlo Gibson, Bruce Hopkins, Paul Ballard, Michelle Leuthart and Oliver Cox. The original score was composed by two masters of theatre music, Tom Dennison and award-winning John Gibson.

Arlo Gibson, the tousle-haired actor who has starred in Shortland Street and Step Dave, says his biggest challenge is coming from back-to-back TV and film roles to a stage play, which demands a different sort of acting.

"I read the script and thought it was a really, really amazing piece of writing and an incredible achievement for a first script," he says. "Coming from screen into something incredibly stylised and figuring out the requirements - how big it can be - is a test."

But Gibson has the right qualifications. He's appeared in a couple of University of Auckland Summer Shakespeares, including understudying for Michael Hurst, and, as a teenager, travelled to the Globe Theatre in London on a three-week workshop trip as part of the Shakespeare Globe Centre NZ programme.

What: Thomus
Where & when: Basement Theatre, August 30 - September 10

- NZ Herald

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