A wild collection of tragic characters - Frequently Asked Questions

21:40, Oct 28 2012
Roger Davies
ON STAGE: Michael Hurst will be performing Frequently Asked Questions at the Theatre Royal Friday and Saturday.

“Why am I wearing tights?” roared Michael Hurst's Macbeth in righteous Scottish outrage. The cry echoed past the narrow circle of stage-light and rolled across the packed theatre. Clearly, we were in for some drama.

As it turned out, Macbeth was wearing tights because Hamlet liked them, and they shared the same body. Deep-voiced Othello also had a go in the tights, as did dementia-ridden King Lear later in the play. Hurst acted each character superbly, even when they fought one another through him.

Written in collaboration with Natalie Medlock and Dan Musgrove, Frequently Asked Questions revolves around the aftermath of Hamlet's pivotal “To be or not to be” scene. In the play, Hamlet is removed from his royal context into a sparsely-furnished flat to debate whether or not to kill himself. Before the young, well-spoken Dane can properly decide, the three older kings turn up and begin arguing ferociously over who gets to act as Hamlet once he's gone.

Hurst and his tights did well to contain such a wild collection of tragic characters. Macbeth was easily recognisable by his broad Scottish accent and creative swearing, while Othello had a strange accent and an even stranger manner. Lear had a high, reedy voice and a talent for irrelevancies that infuriated Macbeth- at one point, Hurst mimed Macbeth beating him up and then urinating on him.

A lot of the humour focused on the crude behaviour of Macbeth and how it affected the other characters, especially delicate Hamlet. He interrupted Hamlet's famous soliloquy part-way through the “to sleep, perchance to dream” section:

“I f'n hate sleep, me. I f'n murdered sleep.”

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“You think yours was bad, my whole story was like opening up a transfusion,” he remarked on the relative bloodiness of each character's plays. “At least my story doesn't disappear up its own fundamental every 10 minutes.”

Hurst actually used a small gas stove to cook an egg-and-cheese sandwich on-stage, which was half-eaten by Macbeth only to be stolen by Lear later in the piece. Lear did not display a great deal of awareness, but contributed to the storyline by being utterly unpredictable. Othello had a similar function, scaring away Macbeth so he can reason with Hamlet before appearing to lose his mind briefly. It is a testament to Hurst's skill as an actor that this scene came through effectively.

Things got more confusing as the characters' respective love interests also made an appearance, referred to in the third person rather than being acted by Hurst as well. From what I could tell, Othello accidentally caused the drowning of Ophelia before maiming Juliet and losing track of Desdemona.

Hurst raised storms of applause when he mimed Othello cutting his own throat.

“I'll let myself out,” he said afterwards.

The crowd were hugely appreciative of Hurst's famous self-stage-fighting scenes, clapping riotously every time. He didn't hold back in any one of them; punching himself, tipping himself over chairs, tables, falling to the ground and leaping back up again to challenge the unseen attacker. It was a unique sight.

The play was finished after Hamlet and Macbeth had a slap-fight, Lear returned to finish the last of Macbeth's egg sandwich and Othello had an epileptic fit in the chair. A recorded voice, startlingly normal after Hurst's larger-than-life characters, rang through the theatre asking about a drink after the show.

Shocked out of his reverie, the Hamlet character took a bow. The audience gave him a standing ovation.

Nelson