Despite a long career in theatre, film and television, including Iolaus in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, actor Michael Hurst had never done a solo show before No Holds Bard. That was until he was called by the 20-something writing team of Dan Musgrove and Natalie Medlock.
Musgrove and Medlock approached Hurst with their concept of a solo show that salutes some of Shakespeare's greatest characters after being directed by Hurst themselves. For the past five years, they've also been stage and television actors, with Musgrove starring in Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud, as Mr Asia drug syndicate founder Martin Johnstone, and Medlock as Jill Kingsbury in Shortland Street and parts in The Almighty Johnsons and Auckland Daze.
Hurst had seen their first jointly written show, Blinkers, when it was staged in 2008, not long after the two had graduated from Toi Whaakari New Zealand Drama School in Wellington.
When Musgrove and Medlock moved to Auckland, being directed by Hurst was one of their first acting jobs. "It was amazing. We had heard of him and we had seen him in Xena and Hercules. I knew he was a formidable actor and being directed by him you got a touch of his presence. It was great," says Musgrove, who is in Australia this week working on acting and writing projects, including dialogue for Shortland Street.
The two say it meant that when they were putting together the concept that grew into No Holds Bard, Hurst was the actor they went to first.
The play, first performed at the New Zealand International Arts Festival last year under the title Frequently Asked Questions –To Be or Not to Be, etc., is set in a Shakespearean afterlife. Hurst plays an insomniac called Hamlet, who returns home to find a script about the end of his life. He then questions the meaning of life and has conversations with himself as Macbeth, Othello and King Lear.
Musgrove and Medlock's earlier works include the Christmas comedy shows Christ Almighty and Toys, staged at Bats Theatre in 2010 and 2011. Both had big casts and the two first envisaged the comic No Holds Bard with an ensemble cast rather than as a solo show.
"We had this idea of a Shakespearean afterlife as the setting for a play. What happens to these characters when they die was the essential questions. What if Romeo and Juliet were to die and wake up in this heaven or purgatory? We thought it would have about eight actors in it but Michael was the one actor who could pull it off [himself]. He has such a repertoire and can play all those characters himself."
The two pitched the idea to Hurst, who was immediately open to it and to doing it solo. "He said it was something he always wanted to do and looking for something to hang a show off, really," says Musgrove.
Medlock says surprise was important. "He wanted to step outside his comfort zone and to create something that was new that people didn't expect."
She also knew that Hurst could inject a deeper appreciation of Shakespeare than they could. "I always loved [Shakespeare] but I wouldn't say I was as impassioned as Michael was, which was why it was so infectious to work with him. [Shakespeare produced] a phenomenal text. To try and grapple with that, to juxtapose it with modern text, put it in a context to reach a wide range of audiences and have comedy in it and irony – it was hugely challenging.
"It would have taken Dan and I a lifetime to absorb that much Shakespeare that Michael had at his fingertips.
"He didn't want to do a collection of famous pieces or anything like that," adds Musgrove. "I feel very lucky that we were in the right place at the right time. He would have got there eventually."
The Dominion Post reviewer Laurie Atkinson praised the play during its festival season as a "comic tour de force" and it has since been performed by Hurst around New Zealand and Australia to the same critical acclaim.
Musgrove says there have been some changes to the show, and he and Medlock both credit Hurst as contributing to the script, which has a tincture of autobiography about Hurst's own career in playing and directing Shakespeare.
Musgrove and Medlock's own careers continue to juggle several projects.
They've had funding to write a feature film script and they return to the Wellington stage themselves at Bats Theatre in August with a new production that incorporates a reworking of their previous comedy shows, Dan is Dead /I Am a Yeti and Yeti is Dead/I Am Tom, for the basis of a trilogy.
No Holds Bard, Downstage, May 16-June.
- The Dominion Post
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