Laugh a minute as actor turns to bard's ghosts

ON STAGE: Michael Hurst will be performing Frequently Asked Questions at the Theatre Royal Friday and Saturday.
ON STAGE: Michael Hurst will be performing Frequently Asked Questions at the Theatre Royal Friday and Saturday.

Michael Hurst performs at the Theatre Royal this week in Frequently Asked Questions, a play described as being set in the Shakespearean afterlife. Anna Pearson spoke to the veteran actor ahead of his show.

Michael Hurst insists that audiences don't need to be familiar with Shakespeare to enjoy Frequently Asked Questions, a solo work that premiered at this year's New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington.

"I did it in Canberra in Australia recently and one reviewer said, ‘If you know Shakespeare, this show is a laugh a minute; if you don't know Shakespeare, it's a laugh every two minutes'. I think that sums it up," he says.

Hurst spoke to the Nelson Mail from Auckland this week, in between rehearsals for a show he is directing about the life of Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel.

Brel is the theatrical debut of two of New Zealand's most well-known musicians - Jon Toogood, of Shihad fame, and Julia Deans.

Deans, who performed in Nelson last week, and Toogood are joined by celebrated singer-songwriter Tama Waipara and Hurst's actress wife, Jennifer Ward-Lealand, in interpreting the Belgian musician's genius.

"It's a great show. It's pretty wild," says Hurst, while eating his lunch on the go last week.

He is a busy man, describing how he practised his lines for Frequently Asked Questions while doing his ironing a few days earlier.

In Frequently Asked Questions, Hurst plays a man - "it's me, the actor that can't let go" - who is possessed by different characters, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello.

"He's having a dark night of the soul and the characters come in and wrestle with his mind and his body to help him get through it.

"This isn't just my favourite bits of Shakespeare. It's much more kind of lateral and outrageous than that."

Hurst says he has done a lot of stage combat, back in his Xena: Warrior Princess days, "but not fighting myself", as he does in Frequently Asked Questions.

He says it's a "sore" process, but "I think the audience really love it. It takes a lot of energy, but I think that's what audiences want to see".

What would Shakespeare think of Hurst's first solo performance? Would he approve of his foul-mouthed Macbeth and Hamlet's dingy flat?

"I think he'd love it. I'm his kind of performer. I fight myself in it, do poetry and make jokes. I think he'd probably find it was pretty cool," he says.

Frequently Asked Questions was given another name, Bard Day's Night, after Hurst and co-writers Natalie Medlock and Dan Musgrove realised the former wasn't the most Google-friendly title.

Then they found out about a play in England called Bard Day's Night.

"We had one evening when we came up with a huge number of puns about it. The worst one was "It's My Bardy and I'll Cry if I Want To," says Hurst.

The veteran actor says he is "really, really, really" familiar with Shakespeare, having played both Hamlet and Macbeth on two occasions.

He has also starred in a dozen other Shakespeare productions, directed shows, given lectures on Shakespeare at university and taught other actors how to speak the playwright's language.

He wanted Frequently Asked Questions to combine Shakespearean influences with British stand-up comedy, and it had to be "off the wall".

"We [Hurst, Medlock and Musgrove] created it together. They're both new, young voices in the theatre world, and they're fabulous and zany and funny," he says.

"I'm really glad that across the generations, craziness still works. I'm quite an energetic performer, and they're both energetic. We had a fabulous time.

"I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed making this show, and I love performing it.

"It's not all funny, though. There are darker bits."

Frequently Asked Questions is Hurst's solo debut, which he describes as a "love-hate thing". "You get up there and it is terrifying, but it is great. It is actually a wonderful thing to be on stage by yourself. There's nowhere to hide."

  • Michael Hurst, Frequently Asked Questions, Theatre Royal, 7.30pm Friday and Saturday.

ALSO COMING UP Carnival Hound is a contemporary dance and theatre work produced by Cuba Creative, looking at the distorted realities and power struggle between two women and a man. Their story is communicated through puppetry, mannequins and body parts, lighting and original music. The show is at 7.30pm at the Theatre Royal tomorrow