Shakespeare Nerd’s Dream [by James Wenley]
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Subsequent to this 2012 season, the Michael Hurst’s show has been renamed for a third time as No Holds Bard, see Sharu Delilkan’s review of its 2013 return Basement season.]
Michael Hurst looks like he’s just stepped off a poor imitation of a Shakespearean stage: black doublet, tights, a particularly foppish wig, and…. a noticeable codpiece (how did the Elizabethans takes themselves seriously?).
But the costume isn’t what we notice first. I won’t spoil the comical and disturbing opening image, but with one gesture Hurst cuts through centuries of academic conjecture and Harold Bloom to get to the essential heart of Hamlet’s mental state. Hamlet stands before us, codpiece and all, but not as we know him.
Bard Day’s Night (originally Frequently Asked Questions) is written by Hurst, Natalie Medlock and Dan Musgrove (who share directing duties). Incredibly, this is Hurst’s first solo show, and he couldn’t have picked for himself a better showcase. Like international giants like Steven Berkoff or Simon Callow he gets to do a Shakespearean revue with all his favourite monologues, but in a highly physical and direct way that takes the piss out of himself, subverts the great Bard, but also restores Shakespeare’s power and themes.
The show exists in a sort of Shakespearean purgatory, where Shakespeare’s great tragic figures – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear – try to come to terms with their roles and fates. With Hurst taking on all the parts, there’s also the sense of an actor gone mad. It’s as if Hurst, after a lifetime of playing Shakespeare, is finally overwhelmed by the imaginative assault of Shakespeare’s characters, and has lost his own identity within them.
Hurst’s Hamlet, the great philosopher, flits backwards and forth in his meager flat, reduced to snatches of lines and thoughts. He tries to recall the ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech, the order of events in his life, before returning to the question on everyone’s minds: “Why tights?”
In walks Macbeth, and Hurst has got me completely. A cheeky rogue with a thick Scottish accent who claims he can’t be killed, underneath his exterior he’s a big softy. Now playing both in conversation, Macbeth goads and teases Hamlet – which character has it worsts? Why can’t Hamlet make up his mind? While Shakespeare allusions are dropped in their hundreds, the language is immediate and laugh out loud funny. As it turns out, Hamlet and Macbeth are one of Shakespeare’s great rivalries.
A wailing and pathetic Lear cameos, but when Othello enters, the play takes an interesting tonal diversion. Othello immediately seems a badly acted stereotype, drawing upon the Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles tradition that’s more than a little cringe-worthy today, which Hurst exploits with relish. But through this Othello, the show really pulls together as an exploration of the mental states of these tragic ‘heroes’ and the afflictions that unite them: ego, madness, and misogyny. It’s not pretty, going rather dark when Othello picks ‘tiny’ woman up in his hands and bounces them on his knee, before revealing a violent and abusive complex against them. Until then, I thought Bard Day’s Night was a comedy; I began to wonder whether it really was to be a tragedy after all.
There’s a happy tension between ‘bad Shakespeare’ and ‘good Shakespeare’. There’s a real delight taken in riffing on and ripping up the characters and Shakespearean pretension. It rewards Shakespeare fans, quoting generously from the bard and using many of his words as punch lines. While those without a working knowledge of Shakespeare will get a sense of these characters and their situations, Shakespeare nerds will get the most out of it. For the many who reportedly endured years of badly taught oh-so-serious high school Shakespeare, I imagine this show would prove a satisfying catharsis – take that NCEA English! And yet, and yet, amongst the piss taking, Hurst restores Shakespeare to his pedestal. The most emotionally moving moments are pure Shakespeare soliloquy – a contemplative Hamlet, a defiant Macbeth, and dark Othello (working even with the funny voiced accents).
And I’ve never heard THE speech – you know the one – communicated with such power and so clearly. Hamlet doesn’t do it alone either; he’s helped along by the nihilistic Macbeth who knows what decision he wants Hamlet to make, Hamlet for his part gaining confidence as he rails against death. It’s a magnificent power struggle.
And just when you think there is no way that that can be topped, Hurst launches into a full on extended slapstick fight scene between Hamlet and Macbeth.
We already know that Hurst is one of our best, but just to prove it again, he gives us this performance. It’s his skill that makes this fly, swapping between character, bawdy and pathos with swiftness and ease. There’s something really kiwi too, for our pre-eminent Shakespeare actor, to dress up in tights and perform at The Basement. Hurrah.
In the end, the show is neither comedy nor tragedy. And whether it signifies nothing, or something, is up you. But for the price of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear AND Michael Hurst, you’d be mad to miss it.
Bard Day’s Night is presented by Royale Productions and plays at The Basement Theatre until 26 May. More details see The Basement.