Interview: Michael Hurst on Macbeth
Radio, 19 May 2004
Jim Mora: (Macbeth) opens at Auckland's Maidment Theatre later this month with Michael (Hurst) in the lead role. Michael is with us this morning. "I have no more words, thou bloodier villain; my voice is in my sword . . . " something, something, something . . .
Michael Hurst: (laughing) You can't remember! "Of all men else, I have avoided thee", yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. It's going very well, thank you.
JM: Is it?
JM: I just realized why I kept the day job.
MH: I'm surprised I even got up with how old you're making me out to be. (both laugh) I've just been beaten to death twice this morning already, so . . .
JM: You only look 32. (Michael laughs) Have you played Macbeth before?
MH: Actually, I did play it. I played it in my 20's and I gave it a really good shake, and I . . . even then, though I was thinking, this man kind of needs to be having a sort of a last-chance attempt at getting what he needs out of life and, you know, feeling like a failure at it. So I kind of even then thought he should be in his 40's, and so now I'm having another go.
JM: Yeah, I mean, how old is Macbeth supposed to be, do you reckon?
MH: I don't think it's supposed to be, you know, questioned, really; I just think he is what he is. I mean, in Hamlet, you know, there is argument that he should be 33 or 31 depending on which bit of the text you look at. And he's a young student. But Macbeth, you know, ambition is inordinate(?), isn't it, so he can kind of span the range. It's just that there's a whole marriage question. And it's an amazing, an amazing study of the break-up of this marriage. You know, you have to have that as well, so . . .
JM: It's a fairly severe break-up.
MH: Well, it is a severe break up, but if you take away the murder and talk of kingship, they could be talking about a mortgage except that it's going to kill the bank manager as well, you know.
JM: Hey, I found something Lawrence Olivier (which you may know already) said. He said when you're a young man, Macbeth is a character part; when you're older, it's a straight part. Now . . .
JM: . . . now . . .
MH: Yeah, that's true, that's really true.
JM: Well, what does he mean? Does he mean that as we get older, we get more malignant and blood-thirsty and . . .
MH: I think it's less boys-own adventure when you get older. Macbeth, you know, it's in-built, it's got a hiss and a roar, it's completely in-built and there's witches, there's blood, there's violence, and then there's this sort of . . . there's a very sensual level to it as well. But when you're older, you take that as a given, and what you're looking for is this other thing, which is the study of the psychology and what makes this man "knowingly wage mortal war on his own soul", he said, quoting him.
MH: So, it quite a big deal, it's a different, it's a different . . . the levels are much deeper, you know. In fact, you realize the play is called Macbeth and not "The Witches", do you know what I mean?
MH: Well, quite often the supernatural, the question of what the witches are, and whether they're fate, and whether there's a free-will in it and everything, tend to overshadow the fact that this man makes his own decisions and has a leaning, a tendency towards that darker side and walks that path knowingly and takes the audience, wide-eyed, with him to the brink of doom, you know. It's extraordinary.
JM: Ok. So, it's a matter of choice partly.
MH: It is . . . well, it's not partly a matter of choice, it is a matter of choice, in my opinion, in the play, you know. The only choice that isn't there is the playwright's choice, you know what I mean? The playwright is god in the play, do you know what I mean? So whatever happens is the result of the playwright. So you're always interrogating, you know, the idea of providence, aren't you? You know, in Macbeth, you have to be careful that you don't take his power away and make it all due to the witches, cause it isn't.
JM: So what kind of production are you planning?
MH: Well, I have a thing about Macbeth. I think it's . . . You know, I don't mind modernizing Shakespeare. In fact, I just think it's a given that every generation reinvents Shakespeare and if you're going to . . . you know, in his day, he was wearing contemporary dress, you know what I mean, so, it doesn't matter to me, as long it makes the text speak. And in Macbeth, I think modernizing is difficult in some ways because it has a supernatural element and how do you make that kind of frightening, and there are some social mores that have to be observed, you know, kingship and a strict pecking order. But on the other hand, if you go back to swords, they're kind of . . . it's a bit easy with swords cause we know they rehearsed it, you know, we sort of know. It . . . it distances us. So I've kind of set it in a kind, a more recent time, quasi-Victorian, more, I think, to give it a kind of old feel and yet we still work out the decisions that those people made so it's close enough to us to be relevant.
JM: Jennifer is producing, isn't she?
MH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's great. She's the best producer I've ever had. "Can I have this?" "Nope." "Why not?" "It costs too much." No, no; she's really brilliant. It's going to be, it's well-managed, it's a well-oiled machine. And co-producer, Michael Morris has also got a really good handle on how things run so we're doing very well so far.
JM: So what are the pluses and minuses of working with your partner?
MH: There are no minuses.
JM: Oh, well said, Michael. (Michael laughs)
MH: No, I mean it, I mean that, I've got a sincere face on as I say it. No, it's very smooth because we both want this fabulous kind of product and, you know, we're committed to the theatre and the community and the theatre community has been committed to us. We've had lots of great support, and, you know, it's a really positive experience.
JM: Now, it is such a desperate play, Macbeth, isn't it, and I was trying to follow you as you were talking before and . . .
MH: Oh, I got a bit carried away.
JM: Well, no, it was just a bit too cerebral for me, but how are you playing him, as a man who journeys sort of reluctantly into evil or as a man who wants to go there; is it clear cut?
MH: When he makes the decision, Jim, when he says, "I am settled, and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat", he commits himself whole-heartedly. And the thing is, he knows what he's doing. He knows the risks, he tells his wife as much, he says, if we go there, we're going to become monsters: "I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none". And she doesn't hear it. And her view--her naive view--is that, you know, she'll be able to deal with it--"a little water will clear us of this deed". But he says--no, no. He's the first one to tumble--if we go here, it'll be awful. But he does, for whatever reason. That is the difficult question: it's to do with his relationship with her, his ambition, his leaning toward the dark side, you know, the fact that these spirits come to him and facilitate almost this sort of journey. He's not reluctant once he makes the decision, but he goes through all the throes of conscience before he makes it. Once he makes it, we just see this appalling disintegration and the self-knowledge of that disintegration, that's the important part.
JM: Yes. And at the end of the play when he wants to spare Macduff, as I recall . . .
MH: He doesn't want to spare him, he doesn't want to spare him. He's been told that Macduff is born of a caesarean, and he's realized that Macduff can kill him.
JM: Yes, but before that doesn't he say something like, I don't want your blood on my sword?
MH: Yeah, yeah.
JM: Oh, look, I can't remember it . . .
MH: You're right, you know, you're right. He says, "of all men else, I have avoided thee, but get me back my soul, it's too much charged with blood of thine already"--I'll kill you if you come at me, yeah. You're quite right, he kind of does, but I . . . yes, you're right, I don't know whether . . . we haven't sort of got there yet, in depth. I'm wondering whether it is a plea for forgiveness or whether it's just another, you know--don't even try it. Just previously, he says more or less the same thing in truncated form to young Siward and kills him in an instant, you know, demonstrating his sense of his own power. So, Macbeth as a sympathetic character--the miracle of the play is that when he dies, you miss him, you know what I mean? And it's not just because he's been there for two hours, you know, you actually miss him. It's a weird mix, you know, it's a very strange and heady brew.
JM: There's not much of the play left after he dies, though.
MH: No, no, no, no, but, you know, and he dies off-stage. He dies as one of those people, need to be removed, those forces of evil, just quickly and out of the way.
JM: . . . alarums and excursions.
MH: Yeah, there's no dramatic death-speech at all.
JM: Now, so, you like Macbeth. You quite like the geezer.
MH: Um . . .
JM: Parts of him.
MH: Well, I like the role. I like the man . . . I don't know that . . . yeah . . . I do like him . . . Oh, gosh, that's a really tricky . . . You know, we all love the characters we play, we have to.
JM: Yes. Yes.
MH: But as a man, I really don't know. I'm not sure that we're meant to like him. I think we just have to . . . he's, um, he carries the vicarious banner of our journeys, you know, we all know that dark side and we . . . he is kind of elected to take us down that path. We can go home to bed but he can't. You know what I mean?
JM: Yes. It was a somewhat overstated question on my part.
MH: (laughs) Well, I've come on it fully blown up, so . . . (laughs)
JM: You've acted in a few Shakesperian plays now.
MH: Yeah, yeah; I've done quite a few. I've played Hamlet twice and this is the second time I've done Macbeth and, oh, you know, I've been in Othello, and As You Like It, and The Winter's Tale--lots of plays and directed a number as well so--I just love it. I find it the most powerful expression of this theatre art, really.
JM: Do you think there are ideal stages or ages to perform some of the main roles?
MH: I don't know. You know, the classic old one about Lear is, you know, when you're young enough to play it. . . when you're fit enough, you not old enough, and when you're old enough, you can't do it because you're not fit enough.
MH: And so maybe there's a happy median in there for King Lear. Some people--Olivier first played it when he was 28 and, you know, probably made a good job of it, but . . . I don't know, I think there's an argument for both. There's an argument, for example, for a 14 year-old Juliet, but there's also an argument that says a woman who remembers the experience in an observed way, in the way that the writer remembers the experience to have written it so beautifully and succinctly, may bring more power to it, you know, that a woman in her twenties would be more suitable, so who knows. I mean, I played Hamlet last year and I theoretically was in fact a little old to play it, but then I just aged everybody else up and, you know, we had a mature production. It was fantastic.
JM: Do you have a favorite role?
MH: Not really . . .
JM: In Shakespeare?
MH: No, I mean, you know, I could have played Hamlet forever, and I can probably do this one . . . you know, we'll open, and we'll still have all this discovery, we'll close, and we'll still be discovering, so-- no, not really. I just . . . I love the whole form, really.
JM: Who've been the most famous Macbeth's, until now of course?
MH: Well, you know, you hear there's a famous . . . the tradition of Macbeth dropping the glass when he sees Banquo's ghost at the banquet. Now, I think that is Garrick, and that's quite an old tradition, he was an 18th century actor. I know that Olivier is very famous for when he did it in the fifties because he, um, one of the reviews said he "shook hands with greatness" because he found . . . with a lot of Macbeth's, what happens is in the first few acts you kind of shoot your bolt, so to speak, and the rest of it is protracted sort of bombast and death. Yeah, he found a way through to have the self-knowledge keep progressing right through to the end. And I guess, you know, that's what I'm looking for, to try and find the final position that he's in, you know--is it completely despairing or is there any hope or what is that state? So he's very famous for doing that and for his sword fight in which various Macduff's lost parts of their bodies, you know. Cause you do have to be careful, that fight is a big, you know, it's a big thing, you know, everybody wants that fight at the end.
JM: It's coming hard on the heels of Goldie, isn't it? You are busy, busy, busy.
MH: Oh, yeah, yeah. I'm rehearsing Macbeth and performing Goldie at night. But rest assured the two don't, you know, Macbeth doesn't suddenly erupt into Goldie and start hacking and slashing his way through the set. Although, that could be fun. Um, no. That's how we used to always work when I was a young man in a sort of repertory system. You know, it keeps you fit, I'll tell you that. Keeps you on your toes.
JM: I'll bet it does. Now, you've still got a website, in fact, several fan sites on-line. There's michaelhurstnow.com . . .
MH: Yeah, yeah.
JM: . . . and there's the Michael Hurst Fan Listing.
MH: This is the Hercules legacy.
JM: Yeah but, I mean, they're still there and they're still looking good. How many hits do you get, do you know?
MH: Oh, I haven't a clue. I don't go looking at websites! (laughing) What would I do that for? (big laugh) I live with myself every day, Jim.
JM: But look, there's even a site where you enter your birthday to calculate your compatibility with Michael Hurst.
MH: You're kidding!!
JM: No, no; it's true.
MH: (big laugh) Roll up, folks, I'm gonna make money out of that, if only I'd known! (laugh)
JM: Yes, and of course you still traipse around the world going to conventions and such occasionally don't you.
MH: Occasionally--well, traipsing, I don't know if I "traipse", but . . . (laughs) no, I do, occasionally. Although to be honest, with so much happening here, and with my family, and wanting to sort of . . . it's not a primary sort of focus for me. I'm very much into what I'm doing here in theatre and developing some film scripts and things like that, so . . .
JM: But you're still in demand from the Hercules days.
MH: Well, yeah, yeah, kind of, yeah, yeah, yeah. But, you know, it's in my past--and remember, it's 4 years ago, and I'm one of those people that moves on.
JM: Yes, I suppose so.
MH: It's a healthy bubble of existence for me for which I'm very grateful and of which I'm very proud, so . . .
JM: You don't sell autographed photos of yourself at these conventions . . .
MH: Oh, I do. I mean, I have done. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JM: You do?
MH: You don't pay for the photograph; you pay for the signature
JM: How much does a Michael Hurst . . .
MH: I can't tell you how much they pay! I would be giving everything away!
JM: No, I'd love to know.
MH: Well, they vary. Look, it depends how famous you are. I've heard of people selling photographs for 30 pounds, or, you know. Whatever it is, it just depends who you are and how famous you are, doesn't it?
JM: Is there anyone you'd pay to get an autographed photo of?
MH: Who would I pay to get an autographed photo of . . . oh, that's interesting. I've got one of the actors in the cast pointing at himself and saying "me" and I'm shaking my head. They're all listening to me; the whole cast is listening to me as we say this.
JM: For me it would be Britney Spears, eh?
MH: Britney Spears!?!
JM: No, it would be Emma Thompson. Have you seen her in Wits?
MH: Yes, I have, and, that would be something. Yeah, that would be something.
JM: She's . . .
MH: I dunno; I think I'd buy an autographed photograph of Lawrence Olivier at an auction, probably.
JM: Yes, I can imagine that.
MH: That would be my . . . he's the one that I . . . he took so many risks he's the one that I . . . I admire him for his risk-taking
JM: Well, look, I've given you new information this morning--you and Jennifer can go on-line to see if you're compatible.
MH: We can! (laughing) Yeah, we're probably not! (both laugh)
JM: Is it hard being famous in New Zealand? I mean, in some ways, you get the profile without the rewards.
MH: It depends what you view as rewards, for that. I mean, I . . . I . . . Look, I just . . . it doesn't affect me one jot, really, to be perfectly honest. I walk down the street here, it's like, it's just, I'm just, there's no, there's no recognition factor at all hardly, it's just one of those things. And I'm very happy with that. I think it's, you know, I find it very healthy, and I just live my life like anybody else. So, um, I don't know, it's, um, I don't find it very difficult at all. If I'm dead, I am famous--it's one of those things. I'm sure that, say, Lucy would get a lot more attention and I'd be interested . . . I don't know how I'd handle that. For me, it very easy, it's a very stately place to be.
JM. Yeah, and New Zealanders are really good, eh? I mean, they're not impressed by . . .
MH: I'll tell you a story. I did this convention at Pasadena to 3000 people, I could have, you know . . . I could have, you know, painted my bum blue and they'd have given me a standing ovation, you know what I mean? It was amazing and I came back the following weekend to the Helensville A&P show and they put me in front of the highland dancing final and the guy said in between finalists, says "Oh, Michael Hurst here he's gonna be signing autographs later if anybody's interested. Now here's little Cherrie and she's doing the . . . " and they off and went. Nobody came, half an hour I sat there in this white paper-covered cart and this guy looked at me and said, after about 20 minutes, said --I was doodling my own autograph by now, but for nobody, he said "Hey, Michael"; I said, "What?" He said, "What are you famous for?" (both laugh) So, I thought this is a healthy situation I'm in and I think it's great.
JM: That's a fantastic story.
MH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
JM: So, future projects. Future, what's gonna be in store for you?
MH: Well, at the moment, honestly, getting through Macbeth, and I kid you not getting through this spate of work, cause I've been going solidly since the beginning of the year. I directed Measure for Measure and, you know, straight on to Goldie, straight on to this, and there were two films before that, the Treasure Island Kids movies, so I kind of want a break and I'm going away to Europe for a few weeks with my family and then seeing where the film scripts are and seeing what happens next year. There'll be another Large Group production next year, there's the Auckland festival. So, you know, I'm just kind of seeing what I'm gonna do, take some time out to see. And get some reading done. Those are my plans.
JM: Oh, reading; wouldn't that be a great thing?
MH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JM: My producer has just said, ask him if he prefers film.
MH: Oh, no. Film . . . look, I like it all. For me it's all . . . what is it, it's all telling stories; that's what it is. That's what I do, that's how I view it. Some people do other things, do view it differently and, you know, are particular to one aspect of it--but, no, I just, I just like it all. I think that's what I'm here to do actually, just tell stories.
JM: And you do them really well.
MH: Well, thanks.
JM: Nice to catch up. When shall we two meet again?
MH: "In thunder, lightning . . . ", but preferably not in rain.
JM: Probably rain if it's Auckland.
MH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You never know.
JM: Thank you, Michael.
MH: Ok, Jim. See you later.