Prince of Darkness
New Zealand Herald, 17 May 2003




These are serious weapons. The playwright has asked for "foils"--the light, slender, flexible rapiers of courtly combat--but the two men moving across the rehearsal floor, in and out of the slanting beams of morning sun, are, quite literally, heavily armed.

They swing big broadswords--even the back-up daggers in their left hands are more than half a metre long--and although they work slowly, counting their blows as they go, the weaponry whistles through the air as they twist and swirl.

The blades, the handsome handiwork of Weta Workshops who armed everyone in The Lord of the Rings movies, are safely blunt. But they are capable of crushing the skull of any bystander who gets in the way.

Little wonder then that the older of the two combatants implores the rest of the 16 on stage to "be aware of the danger, be more aware than with anything you have ever done before".

Barely two weeks out from opening night--when these weapons will be wielded fiercely and fast--director Michael Hurst is tackling the climactic final scene of the great Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet, in which he will play the lead role.

He's in his element: a former provincial fencing champion and exponent of karate, he's an expert in stage combat who is often hired to train actors to fight. But the swordfight with Laertes (Kip Chapman) with which he has started his day through the entire rehearsal period, is just part of the scene's exacting choreography. Hurst is also working out how to move the entire cast around and retain the dramatic momentum as the play remorselessly doubles its body count to eight.

Hurst, unquestionably our finest and most versatile male actor, has established himself as one of our most adventurous and exciting directors of Shakespeare. And to watch him at work is to see instinct and intellect combine in a way which makes effort seem effortless. He may look like one who's making it up as he goes along--in a sense he is--but his invention is underpinned by a sure sense of stagecraft and driven by a love for the grandly theatrical.

It's a hunger for that theatricality which has persuaded him to take on, for the second time, one of the theatre's titanic roles. Hamlet is the first production of the newly formed Large Group, a partnership between Hurst and associate director Christian Penny. Penny, who teaches at Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School in Wellington, worked with Anna Marbrook under the banner Theatre at Large in the early 1990s, staging dazzlingly inventive pieces like The Butcher's Wife and Henry 8. The pair had long wanted to work together and Hurst, whose last Shakespearean role was in another self-directed Hamlet almost exactly nine years ago, saw the tragedy as the ideal launching pad for an ensemble company which is intended to become part of the Queen City's theatrical landscape. The Large Group, as its name implies, will stage two productions next year and three annually from 2005, concentrating on "big" work--Shakespeare, the Greeks and Brecht are the names Hurst mentions.

Hurst concedes that what he calls "epic" theatre is hard to mount in these budget-sensitive times.

"But I have this theory that if we don't let ourselves do these kinds of plays that pull that much out of us, we're missing out on something," he says. "We need to see theatre that will make us weep and be purged. We don't see it enough. It's a health issue.

"How many plays do you go and see where you say, 'That was a great script; I could have watched it on TV.' This stuff, the bigger epics, they are ritualistic, almost religious ... we don't have any of that. We have funerals, a wedding maybe. We have vestiges of it. But we need these stories told and the theatre is the only place for it.

"I've always said that what theatre can offer that television and the movies can't is the experience of the actor going through it at the same moment as everyone else, that wonderful sense of risk."

Hurst has come a long way since he last rehearsed the duel--his opponent in 1994 was Penny as it happens. At that stage he had just begun playing the hero's sidekick Iolaus in the American TV show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. That gig led to guest appearances on the sister series Xena: Warrior Princess, to his first experiences behind the camera (he directed a dozen episodes) and to a faintly disquieting level of devotion from fans of the cult TV shows (card-carrying, global-travelling members of the Michael Hurst fan club will be prominent in the audience on Hamlet's opening night, you may be sure). Between times he has directed a feature film (Jubilee) and the TV show Love Mussel (the last appearance of his good friend Kevin Smith).

All this has meant he is no longer a struggling, impecunious actor and he's still in demand for lucrative work which is less than classical; he's arrived at today's rehearsals direct from voicing characters from the hit TV series Power Rangers, including an evil butterfly and a post box that licks people to death. But, paradoxically, the progress of his career drove him back to his roots. He's appeared in four stage shows in the last year including the well-regarded Auckland Theatre Company production of Waiting For Godot and the same company's sensationally successful Rocky Horror Show. All that's to say nothing of the two children he has had in the interim, the most dramatic part of what he calls "a whole world change".

Success, he says, prompted a good deal of soul-searching about where he wants his life to go.

"I could make a living doing voiceovers and going to Hercules and Xena fan conventions for the rest of my life. And I've had offers of work in the States but it's all going to be the same science fiction stuff. After all that work, I felt a bit lost but since I made a decision that the theatre was what I wanted to do, it's been good."

Hurst promises a Hamlet no one's seen before. The play, Shakespeare's longest (it would run four hours if staged uncut) is routinely and heavily edited but this director has taken one of those broadswords to the text, removing all the political subplots (farewell, Fortinbras) and stripping it down to a classy soap opera.

Along the way, famous lines have remained on the rehearsal room floor. Polonius, for example, now a nasty schemer rather than an avuncular ditherer, never gets to say: "This above all: to thine own self be true."

"It's a family drama," says Hurst, "regardless of whether you put in all the Fortinbras stuff or not. It still comes down to the psychology."

The years that Hurst, now in his mid-40s, wears so lightly raise other issues. He's cast a Claudius barely older than himself "so when he says, 'Now our cousin Hamlet and our son', it's a sick, terrible joke.

"What does it mean for a man of my age to have not dealt with the idea of his mother in bed with someone? The truth of that for a man who is 40 is different from the truth for a man in his 30s."

Meanwhile he leaves Ophelia in her 20s which increases the isolation of a character he, as director, uses even more cruelly than Hamlet--or Shakespeare--did.

"And what I've found really amazing is that with all that modern stuff we're doing, the script just stands up."

If it seems like a one-man show, it's not. Hurst is supported by a cast with a smattering of veterans--Elizabeth Hawthorne as Gertrude, David Aston as Polonius, newly arrived Londoner Ray Trickitt as Claudius--but in earnest of his hope that the Large Group will become a training ground for new talent, he has cast many students and recent graduates of Unitec's Performing Arts course.

And he also pays tribute to Penny who has been a stern director of the director-as-actor.

"I need him if I want to take it that next step," he says. "I can give you a slick and snazzy Hamlet. I've already got that if the truth be known because it came so fully formed into my head. But last time I don't think I got there. I need to give it another go and to get there I need more pressure on the emotions.

"It's not a matter of wallowing but that really full-on thing that the real tragedians have. Whether I've got it I don't know but I want it."


©Copyright 2003, NZ Herald 


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