The play's the thing

By Dionne Christian

Michael Hurst. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Michael Hurst. Photo / Brett Phibbs

What: Bard Day's Night
Where and when: Basement Theatre, May 21-26

Michael Hurst's cheeky new solo Shakespeare show kicks off a fund-raising drive to tour it.

Given the variety of roles Michael Hurst has played in his three-decade career, you would assume the acclaimed actor, director, producer, writer and teacher has done it all - but he'd never performed or written a solo show until this year.

"I thought it was high time I did one."

Now Hurst, one of our leading Shakespeare practitioners, brings his re-named solo piece Bard Day's Night - it was called Frequently Asked Questions at the International Arts Festival in Wellington - to Auckland before taking the show on the road.

He will perform around New Zealand, in Australia and, next year, at the Edinburgh Festival. Hurst says given his association with Shakespeare, he thought the public would expect the writer to feature prominently in any solo show he devised, but it's likely to provide audiences with a taste of Shakespeare they have never experienced before.

The semi-autobiographical show is as far away from a reverent homage to the playwright as you can get. Instead, it's a cheeky and clever comedy where four of the Bard's best known works - Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth - are interwoven to answer life's big question: to be or not to be?

Hurst, wearing an Elizabethan costume made with material from England, plays main character Hamlet as an angry and struggling Scottish actor living in a squalid bedsit. Late at night, he returns from yet another show and contemplates ending it all. When Macbeth, King Lear and Othello - also played by Hurst - drop in to help him decide, mayhem ensues.

The show gets physical with Hurst putting to use his stage fighting skills - he was once a junior fencing champion and did many of his own stunts in the TV series Hercules - as fisticuffs break out between Hamlet and Macbeth.

"But it's not all beer and skittles," he says. "There are several moments of profundity."

Hurst's first significant theatre role came when, working with Theatre Corporate in the late 1970s and early '80s, he played the Fool in King Lear. Since then, he has played Hamlet and Macbeth twice and taken leading roles in a number of other Shakespeare plays as well as directing many adaptations of the Bard's works.

He heads the committee which organises the Auckland University Students' Association's annual Summer Shakespeare productions and is a passionate advocate for the teaching of Shakespeare in schools.

But Bard Day's Night is a new experience for audiences and Hurst alike. He admits that after years of working with big casts in theatre, film and television, he has felt at times insecure being alone on stage.

The opening night audience in Wellington was boisterous and enthusiastic but the following evening, the audience was more subdued and didn't laugh or applaud when Hurst expected they might. When he finished, he came off stage shaken and doubting his abilities. But aftertalking to his young production team, he realised the audience was listening intently to the lines and having just as an enjoyable time as those on the previous night.

Throughout his career, Hurst has mentored younger performers but this time it was almost a case of them mentoring him. Shortland Street actor Beth Allen and her husband, Basement Theatre manager Charlie McDermott, produce Bard Day's Night under their Royale Productions banner. McDermott acknowledges that Hurst has given them a huge opportunity to develop their producing skills.

In 2010, Hurst joined forces with fresh young writers Dan Musgrove and Natalie Medlock, who also direct Bard Day's Night, to begin writing the script.

Hurst had seen and sometimes worked with the dynamic writing duo on shows like Christ Almighty, Toys, The Giant Face and Dan is Dead/I Am a Yeti.

He liked their risky humour and says the plays they create are new and different: "I really didn't think there was anyone in my generation [Hurst is now in his 50s] who would work in the same way as they do."

They started with Hurst "splurging" about his life and the questions that were important to him. Medlock, who was working on Shortland Street at the time, says the characters emerged quickly, partly because Hurst has played them all before.

She and Musgrove acknowledge they are not Shakespeare buffs, although as a teenager Musgrove - now well known for playing drug lord Marty Johnstone in TV3's Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud - travelled to the Globe Theatre in London as part of the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SGCNZ) Young Shakespeare Company.

"Because of that, I do feel a personal connection with the work but obviously I don't have the experience Michael has. He looks to Shakespeare's texts to make sense of the world."

Hurst acknowledges the truth of that, saying he finds the theme that runs through most of Shakespeare's work is the importance of living life well and to the full: "I think it's about being present - being there when you are there - and turning up for your life. I'm passionate about Shakespeare and inspired by him."

Medlock and Musgrove frequently scurried to the reference books and plays to double-check quotes, characters and wordplays. Both agree they needed the time they took on the script so it could develop and coalesce to the point where they were all happy.

At times, it meant lengthy "discussions" about omitting sections and characters but Medlock says Hurst was always willing to listen and respect their point of view.

"The more you know about Shakespeare, the more layers you find and you begin to develop a greater understanding but I think you could come to this show and know nothing and still have a great time because it's about a man going through a hard time and trying to work things out.

"It's edgy, it's funny and it's very physical."

- NZ Herald

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