Brainstorming the Bard

Michael Hurst in Brainstorming the Bard. Photos by Robert Catto.
Michael Hurst in Brainstorming the Bard. Photos by Robert Catto.

Michael Hurst is one of New Zealand's most recognisable and respected performers. He is also a renowned theatre and television director. At Arts Festival Dunedin he performs in his solo show No Holds Bard. Gillian Thomas put some questions to him.

In No Holds Bard, actor Michael Hurst plays blockbuster tragic heroes Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Lear as they bicker in an actor's grungy bedsit. The performance has been described as ''a breath of fresh Shakespeare air and a comedic head bashing all in one''.

Q: What inspired the writing of No Holds Bard?

A: Mainly my need to try a solo work. I have been working as an actor and director for more than 35 years and I had never followed through on the promise of a one-person show. I wanted the challenge and the experience and the discipline of this mode of theatre. Such an ancient mode - the single storyteller. I gave myself some rules:It had to in some way involve Shakespeare. It had to spring out of my own brain.
What it could not be was an anthology of Shakespeare's best bits, or ''my favourite Shakespeare'' or ''this is how I played Hamlet in blah blah blah ... '' or whatever. No. I wanted to show the craziness of what actors do sometimes, the despair, the insanity, the absurdity. On the way I wanted to pay my respects to Brecht, Henry Irving, Max Wall, that weird period of time in British variety performance from the 1920s to the early 1990s - basically things I liked. I wanted also to pitch myself into something that could only be driven by intense focus. Like jumping into a freezing waterfall. In a theatre bar one evening Natalie Medlock, Dan Musgrove and I agreed to make the show together. I pitched it, they liked it and off we went. Nat and Dan took what I had to offer and just went with it, throwing ideas back at me, getting rid of the unnecessarily indulgent bits, and pushing me to go as far as I could in as many directions as possible. I loved it, and the show still develops. I perform it, take stock of what people say and try to address things if they come up. I have learnt from every performance and from every audience.

Q: Is self-doubt a universal condition for an actor?

A: Surely it's a universal condition for a human. I don't know that actors doubt themselves any more than anyone else does. What an actor needs is self-belief, which, yes, can take many knocks. Actors need to be open, have emotional accessibility and be empathetic, yet need a hard shell and an ability to overcome disappointment at the same time. That can be hard. But you don't go into this career unless you really think you can do it. It's tough if you're deluded, but in my experience most people are realistic and it soon becomes clear if you are going to be able to keep pursuing it.

Q: What is it about Shakespeare that continues to spellbind generation after generation?

A: He cuts to the heart of things. Shakespeare makes us more human. There is nothing more in tune with, and in admiration of, the human condition than Shakespeare. The be all and the end all, to be or not to be, the course of true love never did run smooth, neither a borrower nor a lender be, the Quality of mercy is not strained, the green eyed monster, there are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy ... the list goes on.

Q: The play has been described as, ''exhilarating, brilliant, deranged, soulful and hilarious''. Can you take each of those adjectives and explain why?

A: That's a hard question. I am really happy that the critic who wrote those words had that experience. I know that the piece is a mad and pretty absurd exploration, but it's funny, I think, and honest. I give it heaps.

Q: What are the demands on an actor in a solo performance like this?

A: Beside the usual clear diction, good projection, commitment, sense of risk, poise and dynamic presence, I would say stamina and focus.

Q: Where do you get your energy from when you have no-one else on stage to feed off?

A: From my imagination. In my head they're all there - Macbeth, Othello, Lear, Hamlet, Mum, Dad.

Q: Why are the performing arts important?

A: How can we ever really see ourselves unless we see ourselves reflected in the glass of culture? We make art, music, drama and dance, while at the same time cars, clothes, love, pollution, food, war ... we do it all. In a sense we have always done it all. The urge to seek and understand comes with the territory and how we express ourselves in art and writing, singing, acting, acrobatics, sport - all of these things anchor us, remind us who we are and that there really is no other reality for us than the human one. If we don't celebrate ourselves in all of our aspects, we, as a species, will lose the will to live.

Q: Does Dunedin hold any special memories for you?

A I filmed one of Bruce Mason's final TV screenplays, Daphne and Chloe, there in 1982. I remember it because it was freezing and I had to do a nude swimming scene in a river. Brrrr. But I have never really spent time in Dunedin and I am looking forward to it immensely.

The Show: No Holds Bard plays at the Fortune Theatre, October 15-18 at 8pm, as part of Arts Festival Dunedin. Book at the Regent.


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