David Suchet interview

In 1985, David Suchet played Inspector Japp in a film of Agatha Christie’s Thirteen at Dinner with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. Fortunately he wasn’t very good. Had he been, he may never have taken on the role of Poirot himself.

Suchet, of course, played Christie’s fastidious little Belgian detective in 74 telemovies over 25 years, winning millions of fans around the world.

In between his Poirot commitments, he returned regularly to the stage though he wasn’t able to undertake a long run. However, after Poirot’s death in the final episode last year, Suchet now has the time to tour internationally in a play by Roger Crane called The Last Confession, currently in Australia. Set in the Vatican it is billed as “a thriller” set around the sudden (some think suspicious) death of Pope John Paul I in 1978.

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Next, he plays Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” The Importance of Being Earnest in London’s West End.

During a quick media stop-over in Sydney before the start of the tour in Perth, the thoroughly charming, genial British actor took time to talk about saying goodbye to Poirot, his current role in The Last Confession, his conversion to Christianity, Twitter and the chance to play Lady Bracknell.

Jo Litson: You have talked about the end of Poirot being like saying goodbye to a dear friend. Has it been very emotional?

David Suchet: It was and it is. I can’t really be allowed to let him go at the moment because I’ve just been in this play The Last Confession in Los Angeles and Canada and the last five episodes of Poirot are just being aired there now so when I was there I was doing publicity for Poirot – and that’s a year after I’d finished the series. So, in fact, I haven’t been able to put him to rest. Maybe I’m beginning to from now.

You’ll miss him a lot presumably?

I’ll miss him very much, but he’ll always be (screening) somewhere.

What would you say if they asked you to play him in a film?

I’ve always said if there was a movie to be made of one of the stories I would consider that, because it would be like revisiting one of Agatha Christie’s stories before he died so I wouldn’t mind that. And it would be in a different medium. I’d never do him again on television.

I have been asked to do him in the theatre but my theatre career has always been very distinct and separate from Hercule Poirot. Of course, I’d be tempted to do him in the theatre but I don’t feel, with the best will in the world, that it’s right for me to bring that character into my theatre repertoire. I think it may overshadow what I’ve done in 45 years. I’ve performed in these great plays – Joe Keller in All My Sons, Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Iago in Othello, Prospero in The Tempest – and then suddenly Poirot? You’d have to ask why, wouldn’t you? So it would be for the wrong reasons.

I have to let him go. There will be other Poirots sooner rather than later, I’m sure, and I must be generous and magnanimous and wish them luck and hope they have a huge success with it. But I have to let him go in exactly the same way Sean Connery had to let James Bond go. It was his decision to let go. It’s not my decision to let go but I’ve done all the stories now, there are none left to do so that’s it, I must say goodbye.

You were in an early film when Peter Ustinov played him?

Yes, I played Inspector Japp. He (Peter Ustinov) was such a lovely man. He was so generous to me when I took over and wished me all the luck, publicly as well. But I have to say that I am only grateful that when I played Inspector Japp with Peter Ustinov that I gave such a bad performance. I’ll tell you why. Peter went on to do four or five other films after that with the same cast so if I’d been good I would have been Inspector Japp in all those other films. I would never than have been asked to play Poirot.

I believe your involvement with The Last Confession goes back to before the play premiered in Chichester in 2007?

Yes, my involvement with the play goes back even further than that. It was sent to me by another director for another company in England, I would say four years before it was sent to me again. When it was first sent to me the play was not ready. I liked it very much. I was very intrigued with its plot but the script needed working on. I only was going to be given three weeks rehearsal and I knew those three weeks rehearsal were going to be rewriting the play rather than putting on a finished piece and I said to myself, ‘no, I don’t want to do that.’

About three or four years after that it was sent to me again having been reworked by the writer and it was much, much better to the extent that I was really interested in this play now and went to New York and worked with Roger Crane on my own to develop it even further. Then the producers came on board and then we got a director and he took over that job.

Because of Poirot I only had time to do six weeks in Chichester and 10 weeks in the West End. And ever since then the producers have wanted to do it again and I’ve never been available so now that Poirot has died it’s the first time that I have suddenly been free. I wanted to do it again because I wanted to re-explore the character. I hadn’t really finished in a sense.

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Apparently it’s thanks to you that the play is touring Australia?

We were always going to go to Canada and Los Angeles and I said to Paul Elliott, our producer, I’d like to go to other English speaking countries who have supported my Poirot all these years. Can we please go to Australia and South Africa? He tried both. Australia had (theatre) vacancies and wanted it. South Africa wanted it but had no vacancies at the time so this is why I’m now here. It’s all part of my desire to come and, in a way, say “thank you”. I have a huge fan base here. When Poirot is showing in Australia I always know it’s being shown because my mail bag is huge and I get messages on Twitter saying “I’m now watching you in Sydney or Brisbane…” and it’s always such a thrill for me that my program is being watched on the other side of the world. Now that I’m in Sydney I get stopped in the street and people are so charming and I’m so pleased to be here on stage doing something completely different and, in a sense, saying thank you.

Do you do you own tweets?

I do. People are always surprised. I don’t do it that often. I don’t have that many followers for a so-called star. (He has 29,000). I get on Twitter about once a week and do a few lines here and there but at least they know it’s me. I never wanted to do Twitter. It was when I was in All My Sons in the West End, the publicity department said I had to and they offered to run my Twitter page for me. I said, “well, if I’m going to do it, I know my Poirot fans are going to want to ask questions and things like that, which you wouldn’t be able to answer so I’ll do it on my own.” I don’t get into conversations but when people say nice things I get back and say thank you.

Superficially there would seem to be some similarities between Poirot and The Last Confession: a thriller with a possible murder?

That’s publicity from a long time ago. The play is not a whodunit. To a certain extent nobody will ever know who dunit if they did do it. Pope John Paul I was found dead in his bed 33 days after starting to be the most radical, reforming pope in the history of the Catholic Church. He was everybody’s idea of the parish priest, the “smiling pope”, the people’s pope, the pope that didn’t want to be carried on a throne for his coronation. Sound familiar? Yes, sounds a bit like Pope Francis doesn’t it?

My character Giovani Benelli, an archbishop originally, was a great friend of Albino Luciani who was to become Pope John Paul I and really got his friend into the papacy. He then becomes a cardinal and his friend having become Pope is found dead in his bed. My character then feels such pain and guilt that he has this great struggle of faith. So this play is as much about the struggle of this man as an investigation into the possible causes of the untimely death of this great pope. So it’s a play that will take you into the power politics of the Vatican. Yes, we may be walking around in scarlet robes all 20 of us but you could be entering parliament.

The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

I believe your wife (Sheila Ferris) is in it?

Yes, she is playing the only female role in the play – a nun who takes care of Pope John Paul I. It’s a very long time since she was on stage, over 20 years. She gave up a wonderful career to look after our children, bless her, and this is an opportunity for her to come back, and she’s really enjoying it.

You have recorded an audio book of The Bible. That’s quite some undertaking?

Apart from being a Christian – and I do have a very strong faith – I’ve always found that The Bible is a library of books. We’ve got drama, we’ve got poetry, we’ve got allegory, we’ve got songs, we’ve got history, we’ve got everything in The Bible. As somebody said, it’s the greatest book in the world. For an actor to read it from beginning to end is massive, and it took me over 200 hours. I’m so pleased I’ve done it.

Is it true you converted to Christianity after reading a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room?

No, there wasn’t a Gideon’s Bible; that was the funny thing. My conversion to Christianity from agnosticism or almost on the edge of atheism began in a hotel room in Seattle in 1986. I was beginning to think about my late grandfather and about life after death. I thought, “I don’t believe in life after death and yet I’ve always believed my late grandfather was a spiritual guide so how can I not believe in life after death?”

I looked in the drawer beside the bed for the Gideon’s Bible and it wasn’t there so the next day I managed to get the New Testament and I started to read. I thought I’d read somebody who actually existed so I read one of the letters of Paul. I’ve always been interested in Rome so I read his letters to the Romans. The first half of the letter I didn’t understand at all but then I found a way of existing in the second half of that letter in the Book of Romans that I’d been searching for all my life: how to relate to other human beings and how to be a human being. I thought this is great and suddenly I found a worldview, suddenly I was looking through a lens that made sense to me. Then I had to discover where did Paul get this from and it was from Jesus so that led me to Christianity.

What do you do next?

I’m going to be in The Importance of being Earnest. I’m going to be playing Lady Bracknell in the West End. I follow in the great shoes of Geoffrey Rush (who played Lady Bracknell for Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011). It’s not the first time this cross-gender casting has been done. A number of actors have played Lady Bracknell and roles like Viola. And actresses – though you can’t say that anymore – have played roles like Richard II. But it’s a chance for me to embody a wonderfully written comedy role. I’m really looking forward to it. So I change from playing a cardinal to a lady. What an amazing career for an actor of my age! I’m so lucky.

The Last Confession is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, August 27 – 31; Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, September 3 – 21; and Theatre Royal, Sydney, September 24 – October 5.

This interview was conducted on behalf of the Sunday Telegraph where a story ran on August 10

Bernadette Peters interview

Bernadette Peters. Photo: supplied

Bernadette Peters. Photo: supplied

You might imagine that having originated the role of the Witch quite brilliantly in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods on Broadway, Bernadette Peters might be at least just a teensy bit miffed that Meryl Streep has been cast in the 2014 film.

But if she is disappointed Peters isn’t showing it. “I didn’t ever think I was going to be cast,” she says.

“It’s a funny feeling. I actually feel proud that my role is being done by Meryl Streep. She’s great. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. If it’s not me, it might as well be one of the best actresses there are.”

One of Broadway’s brightest stars, it’s hard to believe that Peters has just turned 66, so fabulous is she looking. In fact, she never seems to age. Her unmistakable voice at the end of the phone from New York also sounds as warm, youthful and excitable as ever.

“We have really good genes in our family,” she says. “We all look pretty good. I’m Italian (born in New York). I take good care to exercise and I eat really healthy.”

A performer since childhood, Peters’ credits range from musicals including Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, Song and Dance, and Sunday in the Park With George to TV shows like Smash, Will & Grace and Ugly Betty.

In 2011, she played the melancholic Sally in the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Follies – her 15th show on the Great White Way. This followed A Little Night Music in 2010 in which she took over the role of Desiree from Catherine Zeta-Jones at Sondheim’s suggestion.

In recent years, she has also become a regular on the concert stage and tours Australia in April with her latest concert show. Such has been the demand for tickets that she has added a third performance in Sydney.

It’s her third trip Down Under. “The thing about Australia and why I love coming is they are the most wonderful audiences (and) the most appreciative. They are ready for it and I want to give them my all,” she says.

“I love concerts because I’m the boss. I get to choose what I want to sing. There’s no fourth wall (between me and the audience). I’m not one character (as in a musical), though I’m doing two songs from Follies – that’s the last show I did on Broadway – and those I’ll probably do in character.”

She will also sing “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music – a song she has vowed in the past she would never perform in concert. Since appearing in the musical, however, she has changed her mind.

“I was in a revival of A Little Night Music and I thought, ‘I’m never going to sing that song again (elsewhere). It’s perfect where it is in the show. It’s written for it.’ And then I had to sing something special for Steve and I thought, ‘you know what, now that I have all this information about the song, I’ll do it,'” she says.

Happy with how it went, it will be one of several Sondheim numbers on her song list for Australia along with some Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“I guess it’s predominantly Broadway songs but there are all kinds,” she says. “I’ll also sing “When You Wish Upon a Star”, which is a beautiful song. I sing Peggy Lee’s “Fever” lying on the piano and I’m doing some Peter Allen.

“I loved him. We did a summer tour together (in 1989). He was so lovely and kind. You could see on stage what a giving performer he was and that’s what he was like in person.”

Peters has been performing for over 60 years now. “The thing about this job is it’s always changing,” she says. “Every time there is a new project or a new show it’s different and you keep learning and wanting to learn. How do I get to the reality of this character? How truthful can I make it? That’s what drives me: to keep learning and sharing.”

Asked about her career highlights she nominates Mama Rose, the mother of all stage mothers in Gypsy.

“That’s an amazing role. It’s like the King Lear of musical comedy for women. I love a great role where you can keep playing it night after night and get deeper and deeper into it and find out more and more. I’m very fortunate to have had (several) roles like that: Dot in Sunday in the Park With George, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun and Desiree in A Little Night Music. That’s a fabulous role.”

Sondheim, who wrote many of the shows dearest to her, has played a major part in her career and is now a friend.

He has said of Peters, “Bernadette is flawless as far as I’m concerned” – and the admiration is mutual.

“I thank him all the time for giving me things to sing about,” she says. “In my show I sing a lot of Sondheim because he writes about real things, interesting and important things. The sentiments in some of the songs (are something) I like to remind myself about: “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” (from Into the Woods), “With So Little To Be Sure Of” (from Anyone Can Whistle).

“The great thing is he’s there to ask him a question. It’s like having Shakespeare there and saying, ‘now what did you mean?’ It is a great gift.”

Bernadette Peters in Concert: Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2 – 4, bookings www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100; Jupiters Hotel & Casino, Gold Coast, April 5, bookings www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849; Her Majesty’s Theatre, April 7 – 8, bookings www.ticketek.com.au

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on March 16

Verity Hunt-Ballard interview

Verity Hunt-Ballard promoting Sweet Charity. Photo suplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard promoting Sweet Charity. Photo suplied

Last time Verity Hunt-Ballard performed in Sydney she flew over the heads of the audience as Mary Poppins in Cameron Mackintosh’s sumptuous, award-winning production.

Now, she is taking on another starring role – as Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity – but this time in a gritty, intimate production.

The show has been chosen to launch the new Hayes Theatre Co, which is turning the former Darlinghurst Theatre in Potts Point into a home for small-scale musicals and cabaret. The exciting initiative looks set to shake up musical theatre in Sydney.

With only 115 seats and audiences sitting up close, “there will be nowhere to hide”, says Hunt-Ballard with a laugh.

“The last role I played was in 2000-seat theatres, which is a different discipline in a way, a different way of storytelling. (Sweet Charity) is really a play with music essentially, not like going to your big budget musicals – which are wonderful obviously, I’m a huge fan of them – but this is different and kind of unique. It’s really exciting to me because I haven’t done a small piece for many years.”

After Mary Poppins ended, Hunt-Ballard – whose other credits include Jersey Boys and The Rocky Horror Show – took a break from musicals to recover from the demanding two-year run.

“It was such a huge journey for me and ticked a lot of boxes, I guess,” says the softly spoken performer, who had only played supporting roles until then. “It was incredible but really hard yakka doing eight shows a week for two years. But it was a huge learning curve and I’m very, very grateful.”

For the past year – apart from appearing in a short return season of Eddie Perfect’s Shane Warne The Musical – she has been focused on raising her baby daughter with partner Scott Johnson who she met when they were performing together in Jersey Boys. However, Sweet Charity was too special an opportunity to resist.

“When (director) Dean Bryant and (producer) Lisa Campbell ring you and say ‘would you like to play Sweet Charity?’ even with an 11-month baby you say ‘yes’,” says Hunt-Ballard.

“We’re opening a theatre honouring Nancye Hayes who’s a really dear friend of mine and who has been my mentor really. She directed me at WAAPA years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. She calls herself my daughter’s fairy godmother. So all the stars aligned and I thought, ‘I’ll just have to take this job’. We’ve just moved to Melbourne but my darling Scott said, ‘OK, we’ll go back.’”

With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and book by Neil Simon, Sweet Charity opened on Broadway in 1966 in a production directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse with Gwen Verdon as Charity.

Other actors to have played the title role include Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 film and Nancye Hayes in the original 1967 Australian production.

It tells the story of eternal optimist Charity Hope Valentine, who dreams of being rescued from her job as a hostess in the seedy Fandango Dancehall by love and marriage.

Though she retains an element of innocence about her, Charity is polls removed from the “practically perfect” Mary Poppins.

“I feel, approaching this role, even more equipped having been through the last year emotionally and having to go to really dark places of sleep deprivation,” says Hunt-Ballard. “Not that Charity has children but she is certainly a character that has had to deal with life’s challenges. She’s tough. Full of hope but really tough (and) quite damaged in a way. She suffers rejection so many times but she just keeps going. It’s a story about the human spirit in a way.”

The Hayes Theatre Co production is directed by Dean Bryant whose many musical theatre credits include working as associate director on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical around the world, the world premiere of An Officer and a Gentleman and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He has also directed The Producers, Anything Goes and The Pirates of Penzance for The Production Company in Melbourne.

In 2006, three years after Hunt-Ballard graduated from WAAPA, he directed her in a show he co-wrote with composer Matthew Frank called Virgins, which went to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Longtime friends, Hunt-Ballard is excited to be working with him again.

“Dean’s vision is quite gritty, quite dark and very influenced by Nights of Cabiria, the Fellini film that Sweet Charity was based on, which focuses more on the fact that Charity is a prostitute. She’s not just a dance hall hostess. She really has no skills, no support and she has to do this to survive,” says Hunt-Ballard.

“Our assistant director Valentina Gasbarrino is Italian and she was talking about the Fellini film and what it meant to Rome at that time: the oppression of the working class that he was showing. Dean is really excited that we are performing in the Cross because we really want it to feel like you are stepping into what could be any club (in the area).”

Hunt-Ballard says that the production will be “very physical” with “hip” new musical arrangements by Andrew Worboys and “hot” costumes by Academy Award-winning designer Tim Chappel.

Audiences will watch the show as if they are in the Fandango Ballroom with the characters.

“It’s quite stark,” says Hunt-Ballard. “We will be using minimal props and costume changes will happen on stage. It will take audiences on an emotional trip hopefully – sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes funny and sometimes beautiful.”

Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point until March 9. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 0498 960 586

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on February 2

Richard Roxburgh interview

Richard Roxburgh chats about Waiting for Godot, Cyrano de Bergerac and Rake.

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

In a case of life imitating art, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving spent the first seven days of rehearsal not only waiting for Godot but waiting for Hungarian director Tamas Ascher.

As in Beckett’s play, he never appeared. Ascher couldn’t make the trip to Australia because of a back injury so Andrew Upton ended up directing the Sydney Theatre Company’s superb production, now playing, in which Roxburgh plays Estragon to Weaving’s Vladimir.

“For the first week it was ‘waiting for Tamas’ so the overlaps between rehearsals and the play (meant) there were all these hilarious moments,” says Roxburgh. “I wonder if it’s ever happened before, the director not turning up.”

It was while Ascher was directing Roxburgh and Weaving in STC’s acclaimed production of Uncle Vanya, which toured to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York, that the idea of doing Godot was born.

“We were rehearsing the scene between Astrov (Weaving) and Vanya (Roxburgh) when Vanya has disgraced himself with the pistol and he’s whinging about his life. It’s one of those unfortunately funny moments. We shared a cigarette as we sat there moping and Tamas just burst out laughing and said, ‘It’s Estragon and Vladimir,’” recalls Roxburgh.

“That’s where the whole idea came from so it was strange to do it without Tamas. I suppose for the first week we were (second-guessing what Ascher might have done). We know Tamas well enough and Anna Lengyel his translator was in the room. She’s a dramatist in her own right and incredibly intimate with his work and methods and style and modes of thinking. But then when it become clear that Tamas wasn’t coming, Andrew had to step up and make decisions so that became another part of the process.”

Roxburgh has never seen Beckett’s landmark, absurdist play but is thrilled to be performing in a production of it – particularly with Weaving.

“It’s obviously one of those plays that you know and I’d always hoped I would find the right environment to do it in and so when it cropped up it was perfect. Hugo and I have such a great chemistry and such great fun together,” he says. “There’s a reliability to that relationship that feels like it could be fleshed out in different ways.”

The two leading Australian actors have known each other a long time. “I essentially became an actor because of seeing Hugo,” says Roxburgh.

“I saw him play Toby Belch in his third year touring production of Twelfth Night when he was at NIDA. It toured to Canberra where I was at university and seeing what he did in that (inspired me). I can remember the production. There were some really fine actors in his year but his Toby Belch was just this landmark of a thing. It was so full of the joy of performance and not without subtlety that I just thought, ‘God, whatever that is I would love to have a piece of that in my life.’

“That really stuck with me. I think the first time we worked together was when I ended up casting him as Warburton, the homeless priest character in a production of That Eye, the Sky that I did in the Sydney Festival years ago. Then we cast him in the first episode of (ABC-TV series) Rake. Then we did Vanya, so we’ve always been in touch.”

Roxburgh says that during Godot rehearsals it wasn’t the play’s bleakness or abstraction that he found tricky but the way Beckett is “dealing with an entirely invented world in a way that doesn’t conform to the ordinary rules of society. Conversation, emotional logic, all of those thing that we kind of adhere to and that you operate within in a normal play aren’t there or if they are they are interspersed so it’s like you get refracted elements of those things throughout. That’s really a bitch to get hold of. It doesn’t conform to the usual rules. There’s no kind of essential narrative logic or emotional logic running through it so getting it into your head is hard. People always say ‘how do actors learn lines?’ Normally you think ‘that’s nonsensical, that’s just what we do’ but in this case it was so hard.”

Although the play is bleak and steeped in what Roxburgh describes as “a kind of apocalyptic sadness”, it is also very funny, with the STC production finding a great deal of humour.

“(Beckett) was pulling a lot from the energy and the dynamism of vaudeville, from the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. All of that energy is in the play as well,” says Roxburgh. “I’m sure there have been incredibly bleak, depressing versions of this play but that’s not the version we are doing.”

Next year, Roxburgh plays Cyrano de Bergerac for the STC (November 11 – December 20); something he suggested to the company.

“It’s a beautiful story that I absolutely love. I’ve always wanted to do it so I talked to them about it,” he says. “I thought Jeremy Sims did a really beautiful Cyrano here (at STC in 1999 directed by Marion Potts) as a kind of chamber piece, which I couldn’t have imagined prior to seeing it but I thought it was really great. But we are going to do a large-scale thing, which I think is great for the gallantry and the fun and the majesty of it.”

Meanwhile, Roxburgh returns to our television screens in February as Cleaver Greene, the brilliant but incorrigible, womanising, self-destructive criminal barrister in the third series of Rake – the award-winning ABC comedy-drama series, which he co-created, produces and stars in.

A US remake starring Greg Kinnear as the barrister, now called Keegan Deane, and Miranda Otto as his ex-wife will begin screening in January.

Roxburgh says that he wasn’t interested in playing the role in the US. “There would have been a great reason to do it financially but I suppose I felt that I have done my Cleaver and if I did one that I had to compromise on or that I didn’t feel I had as much creative control over, I would have hated it. And so in the end we thought it was much safer to say that we get somebody fantastic in America to do it – and I think Greg Kinnear is fantastic. I can’t think of anyone better to do Cleaver over there.”

Asked why the character has been renamed, Roxburgh grins. “That was at my insistence. I just thought, ‘he can’t have Cleaver’. Cleaver is named after the mayor of the town I grew up in – Cleaver Bunton, who was the mayor of Albury. There’s something about that that’s terribly personal and that was part of the fun of the original imagining of the thing.”

Filming for Rake in Australia wrapped just a couple of weeks before rehearsals for Godot began. Roxburgh admits he would have liked to have had a break after “the intensity” of Rake. “But luckily my character in Godot has to look hideous and aged and exhausted and spent so it’s perfect!” he quips.

“But I do need to have time off (after Godot) to get my batteries back in order. It was very hard this year (shooting Rake). We didn’t have (co-creator/writer) Peter Duncan. He and Andrew Knight wrote the scripts but Peter was working on the American one so he was over there. So on a day-to-day basis the ten phone calls I would have had with him in the previous series saying, ‘rewrite this, this doesn’t work, I can’t say that, this doesn’t make sense’ couldn’t be had so we had to find a way of getting through that this time, which made it exponentially more tricky. Thank god for (director) Jessica Hobbs who was really extraordinary and stepped up to do a lot of that work.

“But it was tricky because we knew where the bar had to be and we knew we couldn’t do something sub-optimal. And you know when it’s right. You can feel it, you can hear it, so when it wasn’t you just couldn’t let that go. It actually made this season so much harder but I think it’s worked. I think it’s paid off and it’s absolutely beautiful this season.”

Roxburgh confirms that the forthcoming Australian series will be the last.

“I do think you could continue to take Cleaver on all kinds of magical mystery tours,” he says. “I feel like he’s this character you could put in a jungle in Borneo and see what would happen and there would be fun to be had with that. But we were always determined to leave it with grace and dignity and leave people wanting more rather than less. It got to a point where we were having to massage story lines because they were too similar to ones we had already done.

“And also I suppose I want to see what else I’ve got,” says Roxburgh. “Having said that, I’m going to miss Cleaver terribly because I absolutely love that character. There’s so much of my clown in Cleaver and I will miss him.”

Waiting for Godot plays at Sydney Theatre December 21. Bookings: 9250 1777. Read my review here: https://jolitson.com/2013/11/25/waiting-for-godot/

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on November 3

Shahrukh Khan interview

Shahrukh Khan, who arrives in Sydney this weekend

Shahrukh Khan, who arrives in Sydney this weekend

He’s known as “the King of Bollywood” or “King Khan” – with good reason.

Shahrukh Khan is one of Bollywood’s biggest stars with five million twitter followers and a fan base estimated at over one billion. Named “the world’s most powerful movie star” by the Los Angeles Times in 2011, he has made 75 Hindi films including this year’s Chennai Express.

Said to be worth over $US 540 million, he co-owns two production companies as well as the Indian Premier League cricket team the Kolkata Knight Riders, which won the IPL in 2012.

On Monday, Kahn performs in Sydney in Temptation Reloaded, a hugely successful Bollywood stage spectacular, which arrives here as part of Parramatta’s four-day Parramasala Festival, after playing to sell-out crowds in 12 countries.

The show is a colourful explosion of Indian music, dance and comedy in which Khan stars with Bollywood actresses Madhuri Dixit, Rani Mukerji and Jacqueline Ferandez. There are 40 dancers and several singers, including controversial Punjabi rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh.

Khan’s “people” insisted on vetting questions before the interview with instructions that he wouldn’t discuss his family or personal matters. However, he was very charming when he took time out from a film shoot to field questions about bringing Temptation Reloaded to Sydney.

How did Temptation Reloaded come about?

You know actually we had done this show before about seven or eight years ago and I took it around the world then, when it was known simply as Temptations. This time round we have added some fresh components to the show, reloading it with more and therefore changing its title to Temptation Reloaded to inject some new energy into the show also. I actually came to Australia many years ago with the original show but it was much smaller than this production so it didn’t reach as many people on a national scale. But it got the name out there and the interest, and here we are returning bigger than ever.

How would you describe it? Is it a concert or a variety show?

It’s a mixture of everything to be honest. A bit of dancing, singing, groups and solo singing and a few little comedic skits thrown in for good measure too. I don’t sing live but will in the group numbers as we have actual solo male and female singers who take that lead. We like to incorporate the singing and dancing and skits into a storyline really so that there is meaning and purpose to what the audience is watching. It is more of a variety show than a concert and there will be a section in the show where I interact with the audience and teach them a lot about the art of Bollywood, which is lots of fun. I just hope everybody that comes to see it walks away a little brighter after being immersed in the color and passion of the show.

So it is very spectacular?

Yes, it is extremely colourful, an energetic and fun show that I believe will appeal to everyone. I am very proud to be in this amazing show and sharing it with our Australian fans.

How many people perform in it?

The production tour will consist of about 110 people who will include close to 60 dancers and production, make up, hair and stylists’ people that accompany us on the road. At any given time there will be about 40 dancers performing on stage, three actresses, a few actors and all the people behind the scenes who make the production run as effectively as it does.

How many numbers are you featured in?

(laughs) I’m in quite a few of the featured songs, including a duet with one of the leading actresses and the experience was amazing.

Does it have a similar vibe to a Bollywood movie?

Yes, there is a certain feel to this show that lends itself to a Bollywood movie but with more of a variety show element than the storyline of a movie.

Why do you think Bollywood films are so successful?

There’s a couple of reasons really. The uniqueness of Bollywood is what I believe intrigues people to it most, the color, the passion and the need for people to want to be a part of an industry that helps to create laughter and happiness and highlight the lighter side of life. The world is a crazy place indeed and Bollywood stares at the world and continues pushing and inspiring many to follow their dreams whatever they may be.

Did you grow up watching Bollywood films?

(chuckles) Yes, I did watch them when I was little. I remember curling up at my mother’s feet and watching them with her on a few occasions. My mum was really into movies and theatre and just loved the ceremony of how a Bollywood movie can make a person feel happy just by watching. Emotions are the universal language and Bollywood movies depict a realist approach to showcasing what people, especially Indians, want in life.

I believe you studied economics. What inspired you to become an actor?

(laughs) That’s correct; I am what you call an accidental actor. I wanted to be a film director at one stage as well as a hockey player too when I was younger. The acting thing was not the initial route I wanted to take but when I was approached for some acting roles in Mumbai I decided to take the plunge and haven’t looked back since.

Once you started acting did you want to become a Bollywood star?

I simply enjoyed the aspect of being an actor and getting regular work to be honest. I also knew that embracing our culture and sharing every facet of acting to the Indian community was a positive way to highlight our nation’s diversity and strength.

What does it take to be a successful Bollywood star?

A mixture of things actually. The ability to relay everyday life scenarios through comedy, drama, dance and song whilst capturing the heart and minds of true Bollywood. Looking good is also an important appeal to the viewers as well as having a strong work ethic.

How do you cope with the adulation? And do you sometimes wish you led a more ‘normal’ life?

You know I don’t get too attached or waylaid by social media networks and statistics to be honest but I gauge my popularity and reach by the work I do and the fans I reach through Twitter etc. Of course I am most honoured to receive the recognition and awards etc but I am just grateful for my blessings and thankful for my loved ones who have supported me from day one.

I believe you need six bodyguards in India. Will you be bringing bodyguards with you to  Australia?

(laughs) Yes I do just in case it gets a little crazy during my set. I will be bringing them to Sydney. Oh! how embarrassing! (laughs) Sometimes things can get a little out of control with some of my fans and it’s just easier to have security on hand.

You have been to Australia before?

Yes, I have visited Australia many times and performed there on several occasions so it will be great to return again. I actually shot a film out there called Chak De India in Melbourne and Sydney. It was a wonderful experience and I have a huge love and appreciation for Australia, so I am looking forward to returning. I really hope I get some time to do some sightseeing, especially in Sydney this time.

Did you expect Chennai Express to be such a massive hit?

You know as with everything I do in life I always put my best foot forward and that movie highlighted the sheer work ethic of a very successful team. I enjoyed the movie then and am also shocked when I see the amount of people that remembered this movie.  I will continue to enjoy the movie as the years go by.

You obviously love cricket given your involvement with the Kolkata Knight Riders?

Yes, I do enjoy cricket and have many outstanding Australian team member on my team for a good game. My team actually consists of a few Australian players like Ricky Ponting and they are wonderful people. I am really enjoying this team and all the hidden talents amongst us all.

Do you agree with people who say T20 is ruining Test Match cricket?

I don’t really have a radical outlook on sports to be honest. Times are changing, people’s attitudes are changing and schedules are changing so I think anyone wanting to embrace this movement should base it on individual merit and just to continue to enjoy the game for what it is.

Temptation Reloaded plays at Allphones Arena, Sydney on October 7. Bookings: ticketek.com.au or 132 849

An edited version of this interview appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 29


Brendan Cowell: interview

Brendan Cowell. Photo: Gary Heery

Brendan Cowell. Photo: Gary Heery

Brendan Cowell has spent much of this year living in London, where exciting opportunities are beginning to open up for him as a writer.

Cowell wrote two episodes of The Slap, the acclaimed ABC drama series based on Christos Tsiolkas’s novel, which was nominated for both a BAFTA and an Emmy Award.

“Being nominated for the BAFTA and the Emmy really helps me over there,” says Cowell. “I’ve walked into a lot of rooms, I’ve got a great agent and I can kind of go and see anyone in TV. That was definitely a great door-opener, writing for (The Slap).

“I’ve got a few balls in the air in London now, which is really exciting and that’s where I’m putting a lot of my attention,” adds Cowell, revealing that he is “in development on a show for Channel Four” – a network he says he has “always wanted to work with.”

In June, his 2001 play Happy New, about two brothers whose abusive mother kept them in a chicken coop, had a well-received season in the West End, which has also helped raise his profile in London.

Not surprisingly, Cowell will soon be returning to the UK. But he couldn’t resist coming back to Sydney to perform in Belvoir’s production of Miss Julie, newly adapted by Simon Stone from August Strindberg’s 1888 play and directed by Leticia Caceres.

Earlier this year, Cowell took over from Ewen Leslie in Stone’s award-winning adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck when it went to the Vienna and Holland Festivals – an experience he relished.

There has been much debate in recent months about the number of adaptations on Australian stages, with 28-year old auteur director Stone portrayed as the ‘face’ of adaptations.

Some worry that adaptations are being staged at the expense of original work and though the stats don’t bear this out – Alison Croggon analysed the data in an interesting article for ABC Arts Online at www.abc.net.au/arts/blog/Alison-Croggon/playwright-versus-director-130731/default.htm – there is still consternation among some playwrights at the prevalence of the practice.

Chatting during a lunch break after two weeks of rehearsal for Miss Julie, Cowell is generous with his time, prepared to have his say on a range of issues from the adaptations debate to the differences between Australian and British theatre, as well as discussing the various projects he has on the go as an actor, director and writer.

For his part, Cowell has no problem with Stone putting his own contemporary spin on classic plays like The Wild Duck, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (at Melbourne Theatre Company until September 25) or Miss Julie.

“I think you have to,” he says. “If we were going to do the original it’s really hard to make it work as an actor. They all speak in these long speeches (and) the dreams and the metaphors are very obvious and grandiose. It would be hard to create the tension. And let’s think what class and gender mean now in Sydney. But (Stone) has been incredibly loyal to the structure and I think what Strindberg was really getting at. Strindberg was very angry at that time. Some could say he had deep-seated issues with women of power.

“In the last two weeks Leticia and the cast – because Simon has been in Melbourne doing The Cherry Orchard – have really mined that, especially in the second act. We have really gone into it to find out exactly what Strindberg was furious about and what he was trying to discuss and that’s been really enjoyable.”

Explaining their process, Cowell says that Stone provided a draft adaptation. “We’ve gone in and looked at the original and looked at his (version) and improvised and thrown in a lot of raw material. We’ve videoed it and he’s then come back with (a new version). He’s so clever. He’s managed to encompass everything we found but in his own way so it now has the one voice. So this funny little process is working. None of us have really worked like this but with every production you find the (right) process in the room.”

Later, he says: “we are basically developing a new Australian play as we go along.”

Miss Julie is a claustrophobic exploration of sex, gender, privilege and class. Cowell plays Jean, an ambitious servant who sleeps with his employer’s daughter and then encourages her to commit suicide to escape her predicament when she won’t flee with him and help him realise his dream of running a classy hotel.

In Strindberg’s original, Miss Julie is the daughter of a Swedish count. In Stone’s contemporary adaptation her father is a politician.

“I’m not sure how much I’m meant to give away but, yeah, I’d say he is a kind of (Tony) Abbott-ish figure and you know how many faux pas he had made about women in the past five to ten years,” says Cowell.

“Miss Julie is his daughter, a motherless daughter and a somewhat fatherless daughter, and she’s been put on a media ban because she was caught in a bit of a scandal six months ago in a car with drugs and a boy, which is not going to do him any favours. I’m her father’s driver. I probably fly his helicopter. I’m his right hand man, I’m his bodyguard, and he’s put me and my fiancée in charge of the girl and she’s not allowed out of my sight. So I’m taking her to an after party and watching her and then driving her home.”

For a contemporary Australian adaptation, class isn’t quite the same button-pusher that it was in late 19th century Sweden.

“We do have a class system in Australia but it’s a little more invisible than say in England or in Sweden in the late 19th century,” says Cowell. “I think we’ve had to look at what really is the taboo in this play. So we’ve made Julie just 16 and Jean would be 37 or 38. His fiancée is 39 and wants a baby. So the characters are still very much trapped but by that age thing, which is a big issue in Australia now I think.

“There are lots of women in their late 30s who want to move forward with their life and men their age dating women young enough to be their daughters. And you have women doing the same with much younger men and it can make people very angry. It isn’t Blackbird, it isn’t Lolita, this play, but the age is definitely the main taboo that we are looking at to make it quite potent. It will be interesting to see how men and women react when they come to see it.”

When Stone directed Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman for Belvoir last year, he changed the ending, cutting the final scene, Requiem. Instead the play ended with Willy gassing himself in his car on stage. When word reached Miller’s estate they were not impressed and insisted that the original ending be reinstated. Stone had no option but to comply but was unrepentant, saying in an interview with The Australian that if the play were not under copyright he would restore his own ending.

Whether he changes the ending of Miss Julie remains to be seen but in a passing reference, Cowell reveals that Stone has considered it.

“The whole play is about entrapment,” says Cowell. “By the end of the play whatever happens – and our ending may or may not be different to the original – these characters remain in their endless cycle of life because of the way they are trapped by society.”

Asked about the heated debate regarding adaptations versus new plays, Cowell is characteristically forthright.

“Simon makes a couple of plays a year in Sydney. He is not Australian Theatre. And you know I think it’s great that he is doing it. Everyone should have their work and their manifesto as to what theatre should be. What Australia needs to learn is how to argue well. We need to relish argument instead of taking things personally. I think that’s why I like being in England and Europe because they can’t wait for someone to disagree with them so they can consider their own view on things whereas we end up saying: ‘f**k you, you’re wrong.’

“Even though we can tweet about xenophobia, I still think the artists and the lefties fail to be able to rigorously argue without making things personal and that was a great opportunity, I think, to discover what Australian theatre is and what it can be but instead it became mud-slinging and that’s what’s sad. We should be better than that.”

Cowell’s career continues to develop apace on several fronts as an actor, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director.

As an actor, he is still probably best known in Australia as Tom in Love My Way but his credits range from playing Hamlet for Bell Shakespeare to True West for Sydney Theatre Company directed by Philip Seymour Hoffmann to the movies Beneath Hill 60 and Save Your Legs!, which he wrote and performed in. Recently he played a Hebrew warrior in five episodes of The Borgias.

He is now keen to get his teeth into film directing. He had a taste of it recently when he wrote and directed an 80-minute telemovie for the ABC called The Outlaw Michael Howe, to screen later this year. “It may or may not get a cinema release,” says Cowell.

“It all happened very quickly. I was offered the job five days before the shoot and then I wrote a script, cast it and then all of a sudden I was out in Tasmania. It was an incredible experience. I want to make my play Ruben Guthrie into a movie so it was great to get up there and learn what the job is in a lot of ways and to tell the untold story of this incredible man who was conveniently written out of history because he intimidated the government so much.”

Howe was a notorious bushranger who gathered a small army around him, took on the corrupt government, and terrorised Van Diemen’s Land between 1812 and 1818.

“They had an Aboriginal girl with them so they learned how to live and hide and burn the land,” says Cowell. “He also started having relations with a white woman who was a convict but ended up becoming a settler through marrying a wealthy marine officer who was the richest man in Van Diemen’s Land. So I’ve treated it as a tragic love story of a man who I guess resembles what Australia could be. He’s got this beautiful Aboriginal girl who’s teaching him the ways (of the land) and this white girl who is saying, ‘we can have it all.’ So he has the truth or the greed and, of course, he tries to have both.”

Damon Herriman plays Howe. The cast also includes Rarriwuy Hick, Mirrah Foulkes, Darren Gilshenan, Matt Day and Damon Gameau. “So I managed to get all my friends together to go and make a film and they are all brilliant in it,” says Cowell.

As for Ruben Guthrie, he has written a screenplay based on his acclaimed 2008 play – a sharp-edged black comedy about alcohol addiction and binge drinking – and says the project is now in the financing stage.

Meanwhile, he is looking forward to returning to London to continue work on the project for Channel Four. He clearly enjoys living in London and says that having his play Happy New at the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year was very exciting.

“It was fantastic,” he says. “It was quite surreal to see my second play, which is really a dirty, strange piece of theatre (all of my friends say it is my best play) in the Trafalgar Studios in the posh part of town. The director Robert Shaw really stuck by it over six years to get it in there, after it had a run at the Old Red Lion. It’s so hard to get a play on in London as an Australian playwright. There really is a wall up. They don’t want our work there, they will take work from anywhere else.”

Asked why he thinks that is, Cowell says he doesn’t know but suspects there’s “a colonial aspect to it”. However, he’s adamant that Australian playwrights offer something different to British playwrights.

“What we can give them is something they can’t create – and that’s what a lot of the reviews said about Happy New: this is an urgent, ugly, gruesome, raw, emotional piece of theatre that is so whack and uses language in a brutal way, god bless Australia.

“I see so much British theatre and I come out so impressed but so unmoved at the same time. It’s almost like watching great chess players in a park. It’s like, ‘how did you do that?” but quickly at the bar you are thinking about something else. I find Australian theatre affects me – maybe because it’s my life on stage, my country on stage, but it affects me more than anything because I think our actors and designers are a little more imaginative and little more exposed and messier. We can play complex drama brilliantly and we are ready for the full assault. It is always refreshing to come back and see the actors on stage here. It’s marvellous and I think we’ve got some great directors and designers as well.

“But I was really chuffed to walk into London and see my play on the West End. It definitely helps next time I want to present a work there.”

Miss Julie plays at Belvoir St Theatre, August 24 – October 6

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on August 11 

Todd McKenney’s Centre Stage Tours: interview

Todd McKenney

Todd McKenney

Todd McKenney is used to being centre stage. Now the musical theatre performer who has starred in shows including The Boy From Oz, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – the Musical, Crazy for You and Annie among many others, is organising a series of personally guided theatre tours, which will give others the chance to join him there – if only after the curtain has fallen.

Todd McKenney’s Centre Stage Tours will kick off during the Sydney leg of the forthcoming tour of Grease – in which he plays Teen Angel – when he will take people backstage after the show, ending up on stage for photographs with himself and other cast members.

He is also opening up his beautiful, spacious home on Sydney’s Upper North Shore for high tea soirées at which guests will wander his lovely garden then gather around his piano for a relaxed private performance.

The first soirée on August 4, at which he will perform with Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore, sold out within a matter of hours after he chatted about it on radio with Alan Jones. However, there are still some tickets available for his first theatre tours. Some of the proceeds from the tours will go to the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia.

The idea began during a conversation with his friends Julie and Chris Walker, co-owners of several Sydney restaurants including Berta in Surry Hills.

“They said, ‘have you ever thought of taking groups to Broadway and the West End?’” recalls McKenney. “I thought about it more and more and said to Julie, ‘why don’t you run it with me?’ So we looked at putting it together and decided to start closer to home where we have the contacts.”

John Frost, the producer of Grease, and the Lyric Theatre, where the show is playing in Sydney, both loved the idea. “The Lyric are giving us private champagne rooms as the guests arrive, all sorts of stuff. We have had two travel agents contact us now so we are meeting them. It’s just taken off,” says McKenney.

The first tours on offer are dinner-theatre tours on October 25 and November 1 when a group of 30 will dine at Berta, which offers modern Italian cuisine, then go by private coach back to the theatre for pre-show champagne. After seeing they show, McKenney will take them on a backstage tour. There are also sip-a-soda tours on December 1 and 8 after the matinee with an optional meal.

The reason McKenney is able to dine with guests before the show is that as Teen Angel he only sings one song in the second act – however, he plans to dazzle, literally.

“They asked what I wanted to wear and I said, ‘I want to blind them,’ says McKenney with a laugh.

“If I’ve only got one number I want to hit that stage like a human mirror ball so I’ve got a costume covered in Swarovski crystals with silver aviators, a big white quiff and silver crocodile skin boots, which I’ve just had made. So it’s going to be a good look. I’m going to make an impact.”

Into the future, McKenney is performing in another musical for Frost next year, which is yet to be announced. He has also put in a couple of requests.

“There are a couple of shows I really, really want to do before I can’t do them. One of them is Barnum,” he says. “I’m desperate to do Barnum so I rang Frosty one day and he and I have been talking about that for the future. I don’t know if he’s got it.

“It’s a role I’ve always wanted to play. I love the music, I love the character, I love the story. He’s a showman but he’s got a dark side and I get to do acrobatic tricks. It’s an itch which I haven’t been able to scratch – and it’s my Mum’s favourite musical.”

Meanwhile, Dancing with the Stars – where McKenney has made his mark as the “nasty” judge – is set to return to Channel Seven for its 13th season. The line-up has not yet been announced but McKenney is keen to return.

Dancing with the Stars and The Boy From Oz changed my life,” he says. “As long as they keep running it and asking me back, I’ll be there.”

Tour information and bookings: toddmckenneyscentrestagetours.com.au or Julie 0411 424 010.

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 14. 

Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz: interview

Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz discuss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and other future projects including the Australian tour of Matilda the Musical and the new musical Minchin is writing.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: James Penlidis/EllisParrinder

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: James Penlidis/EllisParrinder

In 1996, Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz performed together in a University of Western Australia (UWA) student production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – the 1966 play that made Tom Stoppard’s name.

Schmitz was initially cast in one of the lead roles but during rehearsals broke up with the director, who he’d been dating, and promptly found himself demoted to the much smaller part of Hamlet. Minchin played the meatier role of The Player and helped his brother write the music.

Seventeen years on, they about to co-star in the play for Sydney Theatre Company, this time with Minchin as Rosencrantz and Schmitz as Guildenstern: a casting coup that has triggered such demand for tickets, the production has extended before opening.

The excitement at such a double act is hardly surprising. Minchin is now a superstar comedy-musician whose hilarious satirical songs have won him an international cult following and who is regularly hailed “a genius”.

Based in London with his wife and two young children, he recently received rave reviews for his rock star turn as Judas in the UK arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar alongside Mel C and Ben Forster. He has also been winning serious plaudits as the composer/lyricist of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda the Musical, currently doing a roaring business in the West End and on Broadway, and headed for Australia in 2015 – more of which later.

Schmitz, meanwhile, is one of Australia’s most in-demand actors. In October, he plays Hamlet for Belvoir then jets off to Cape Town to film a second season of US television series Black Sails: a pirate drama prequel to Treasure Island, which premieres early next year.

He is also a successful playwright whose comedy I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for Tamarama Rock Surfers (TRS) last year and whose latest play Empire: Terror on the High Seas opens at Bondi Pavilion for TRS next month.

Friends since they met as teenagers at a youth theatre company in Perth, an interview with the two of them is a lively affair with thoughtful, intelligent conversation punctuated by sharp wit and much easy banter.

“We arm-wrestled and I lost,” deadpans Minchin when asked how they decided who should play who in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Stoppard’s play was just one of many productions they collaborated on at the UWA drama society, during which time they also performed as a cabaret duo.

In 2004, after Schmitz had graduated from NIDA and Minchin had moved to Melbourne to kick-start a career in music and cabaret, they co-wrote a show with Travis Cotton called This Blasted Earth, which had a short season at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre.

“It was a musical about putting on a terrible musical,” says Minchin. “The first half was the terrible musical and the second half was the cast saying: ‘I can’t believe we are in this terrible show.’ I think I came away with $50 for my songs and three months of work.”

To date, it hasn’t been revived. “Travis and Tim and I talk about it. It wouldn’t take too much work to re-mould it for 2013,” says Schmitz.

“If we didn’t have anything else to do we would probably do it,” says Minchin. “If we had spare time on an island together it would be fun.”

Spare time, however, is the last thing on their hands right now.

It was Luke Cowling, a co-director of the UWA production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who suggested around four years ago that they revisit the play with the two of them co-starring.

“But then he had a baby, blah, blah, blah and it kind of ground to a half. But my manager Michael knew it was a good idea and wasn’t going to let it go so he set up a meeting with these guys (STC),” says Minchin.

The play is an absurdist tragicomedy in which the two hapless courtiers of the title – minor characters in Shakespeare’s play – find themselves in the spotlight, trapped in a confusing, existential world where most of the drama is happening elsewhere as the plot of Hamlet unfolds predominantly offstage.

On the page, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem somewhat interchangeable. They finish each other’s sentences, are mistaken for each other by other people, and even muddle their own names up.

In the stage directions at the start of Act One in which Rosencrantz is tossing a coin that improbably keeps coming up Heads, Stoppard writes that Rosencrantz “betrays no surprise at all – he feel none. However, he is nice enough to felt a little embarrassed at taking so much money off his friend. Let that be his character note.

“Guildenstern is well alive to the oddity of it. He is not worried about the money, but it is worried by the implications; aware but not going to panic abut it – let that be his character note.”

Schmitz and Minchin chuckle at the casual brilliance of Stoppard’s succinct character notes.

“At the beginning you think, ‘I wish you’d given us just a tiny bit more here Tom!” says Schmitz. “But the genius is that you realise he has given you just enough. It’s your job to take one word and riff on it for four pages or hark back to a moment an act ago.”

“We bang on about his incredible genius to be able to write this play at the age he wrote it – you know, almost in a Shakespearean way, how could he have the knowledge?” agrees Minchin.

“But there’s an incredible maturity in how he used that knowledge and I reckon that’s very apparent in the stage directions: ‘Let that be your character note.’ What 29 -year old writes that? The effortless authority at age 29 – I would have wanted to punch him!”

“It becomes quite quickly apparent in performance or on reading out loud even that Stoppard has delineated two quite different personalities,” says Schmitz. “And then in the third act when things start to fall apart for them, lines are crossed and the characters are blurred a little more but I think it’s very clever in its delineation.”

“For the first half of the first act Rosencrantz does a lot of listening,” adds Minchin. “Guildenstern has a lot more text throughout the play. Rosencrantz does a lot more reacting and responding so that when his rants come they are really exceptions to the rule.”

The STC production is directed by Simon Phillips and designed by Gabriela Tylesova who produced the extraordinary sets and costumes for Phillips’ production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Love Never Dies.

Schmitz was at NIDA with Tylesova and says that even then the students were excited by her special talent – “and it’s not that common among the acting fraternity to go and be interested in any other department at acting school.”

He describes her design as “a vision of Elizabethan England” though Minchin qualifies that as being “not so much Elizabethan England as a traditional, Elizabethan-style Hamlet.

“The set is a minimalist, post-modern set, so it’s a Beckettian, Stoppardian non-specific set with entrances and exits designed to have their own weight because of our (Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s) inability to enter and exit. So the entrances are foreboding and the stage disappears in a converging line into infinity.

“There’s a nod to Godot because the play was a nod to Godot so the set design is very minimal but the costumes make it very clear that it’s a traditional Hamlet. You need that to anchor the play. If you reinterpret what are meant to be the foundations then your house crumbles a bit.”

Not surprisingly, Schmitz and Minchin are relishing Stoppard’s famously dazzling word play.

At one point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a game akin to verbal tennis where they have to keep lobbing questions at each other.

“In that questions game, everything they say is utterly related to the characters and the text as well as relating to a rhythm and a toying and a playfulness,” says Minchin. “It’s scary, man. He’s the monster as they say in jazz. The monster.”

Phillips has gathered an exceptionally fine company of actors for the supporting roles, among them Ewen Leslie as The Player, John Gaden, Christopher Stollery and Heather Mitchell: “an embarrassingly fabulous cast” says Schmitz.

“It’s thrilling when the court (characters) come on. It’s seismic. You can do nothing but be slightly rattled and a rabbit in the headlights – which is exactly the effect you want.”

“I think it’s very difficult to do a brilliant production of a Stoppard play,” adds Schmitz. “You need a sparkling cast, great direction and great resources.

“And you need time too,” says Minchin.

“That’s right, like a Shakespeare you need time to plumb and realise that a lot of it is bottomless but you just have to pull up somewhere and say, ‘OK we’re going to have to make a decision.’ Like all brilliant plays, it just continues to reveal itself,” says Schmitz who first read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at age 12.

Schmitz played Dadaist Tristram Tzara in STC’s 2009 production of Travesties – his only other experience of performing Stoppard – while for Minchin it’s his first on-stage encounter with the playwright.

However, he has met the playwright a couple of times at awards nights. “The first time I met him it was just me going, ‘oh my god?’” he says. “And the second time he’d become aware of who I was – which is the most profoundly satisfying thing from someone. You want to meet your idols but actually you don’t want to meet them. What you want is for them to meet you.

“He’s so youthful in his curiosity that he had gone ‘OK, that guy wrote Matilda’ so he’d gone away and discovered I do other things.”

Schmitz has also met Stoppard – though it was only the briefest of encounters. “It was during a writers’ festival and a bunch of young playwrights were being herded into a back room at the Opera House to meet him,” says Schmitz. “Someone had told him I’d written a play called I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard. He said, ‘I’m just glad it’s not called I just want to sleep during Tom Stoppard.’ I didn’t even name the play, it was my Dad’s title.”

The chance to see Minchin on stage in Jesus Christ Superstar and now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is something for Sydneysiders to cherish because we’re not likely to see him in another musical or play any time soon given his hectic schedule.

However, we will be seeing Matilda the Musical. Ever since the show premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010, Australian producers have been vying for the rights.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel and featuring songs by Minchin, the RSC production transferred to the West End in November 2011 where it won rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards including Best Musical. In April this year it opened on Broadway, again to ecstatic reviews and 12 Tony nominations (though it was pipped to the post for Best Musical by Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots).

At last, a deal has been done for the RSC to present it in Australia in 2015 in association with a local producer, reveals Minchin.

“We actually know who the local producer is going to be (but) it’s still embargoed. I only found out (on Tuesday),” he says. “The plan is for it to open in Melbourne in September 2015.”

Meanwhile, Minchin is busy writing a new musical. “It’s still embargoed even though I’ve been working on it for six months,” he says. “But it’s a very interesting, arty but much-loved early ‘90s film we are adapting for the stage: very conceptual, somewhat Stoppardian. It will be more complex and dark (than Matilda). Even though I am working on it with Matthew Warchus, who was the architect and director of Matilda, we are going to try and start it quietly.”

Minchin is also working on an animated musical film for DreamWorks about animals in the Australian outback and when that is done will put a new solo show together.

Schmitz also has a lot happening. Rehearsals for Belvoir’s Hamlet (his second stab at playing the Prince of Denmark after taking on the role for Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre in 2010) begin while he is still performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which will make for “an interesting double play”, as he puts it.

At the end of August, TRS will premiere his new play Empire: Terror on the High Seas about a serial killer aboard a luxury cruise liner in the 1920s featuring a cast of 20.

“The first half is my take on an Agatha Christie and the second half descends into something far more gothic and horror,” says Schmitz. “It’s a spectacle. It’s huge and it’s really ambitious. Leland Kean (artistic director of TRS, who is directing) has always done my stuff well and the cast is really talented and stupidly good-looking, I realise.”

Schmitz wrote his first play at NIDA. He won the 2002 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award for Lucky and was shortlisted for the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award for Chicks Will Dig You in 2003. His 2007 play Capture the Flag about the Hitler Youth has toured widely and I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for TRS last year.

“I’ve never had any interest from any (mainstage) theatre company in putting on any of my plays, ever – and this is play number 12. And I’ve had some really popular ones and critically acclaimed and even relatively economically successful ones,” says Schmitz. “But it got to the point a few years ago where I said to Leland Kean, ‘I’m just trying to get a mainstage company to put one on’ – hence I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard (with) four middle class people and a couch.

“And he said, ‘for your own soul, write one as if it was going on independently as a commercial thing like The 39 Steps or The Mousetrap or something. Don’t worry about the budget.’ I don’t think he was expecting 20 characters or an ocean liner.”

Given the number of projects they both have on the go, is there no end to their talents?

“I hope not,” fires back Schmitz.

“Is there no end to your ego is really the question,” quips Minchin.

But in the end, they agree, it all comes back to a love of words – and music, in Minchin’s case.

“It’s not multi-skilling,” says Minchin. “It’s a love of language and expressing ideas, wanting to perform other people’s great work and wanting to perform your own. That explains everything I do pretty much.”

“Yes it’s just another way of generating your own material,” says Schmitz. “We’ve both been doing that since before we can really remember.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at the Sydney Theatre from August 6 to September 14. Bookings: 9250 1777 or http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Gia Carides: interview

Gia Carides in rehearsals for Beached

Gia Carides in rehearsals for Beached

It’s been over a decade since Gia Carides last performed in a full-length play.

But the actor who is best known for her roles in the films Strictly Ballroom, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, is about to make her return to the stage in Beached by Melissa Bubnic for Griffin Theatre Company.

“I did a play in Tribeca, New York (called) Rocket to the Moon just before I had my daughter and she’s ten now so it will be 11 years since I did a full play,” says Carides who lives in Los Angeles with her actor husband Anthony LaPaglia and their daughter Bridget.

“When she was small, the idea of doing theatre and missing bedtime every night wasn’t right but it feels fine now; she’s independent enough.”

In the interim, as well as appearing on television, Carides has done a lot of radio plays in LA and a few months ago performed there in a short play as part of an evening of comedy shorts.

“It was amazing to be on stage again,” she says. “But this is a full play and I’m very excited that it’s Griffin. I did my first play there when I was 14; a play called Dancing Partners. The next time I worked at the Stables was to originate the role of (the teacher) Papa in The Heartbreak Kid. Then I did a production of Michael Gow’s The Kid.

“So I did a bunch of work there in the late 80s and very early 90s, so it’s a lovely to be back.”

Beached, which won the 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award, centres on a massively obese teenager called Arthur, who tips the scales at over 400 kilograms. Requiring a life-saving gastric bypass, he and his mother agree to go on a reality TV show in return for the all-expenses-paid surgery.

Carides plays his protective mother. “My character is kind of enabling this unhealthy life her son has been living. She is certainly not doing this on purpose. She loves her son very much but she is not realising what damage she is doing,” she says.

“The play is definitely about (obesity) but it’s also about reality TV. The family are victims of a reality TV show as much as Arthur is a victim of his obesity.”

The cast also includes Blake Davis as Arthur, Arka Das as the television producer and Kate Mulvany as a CentreLink ‘Pathways to Work’ Officer.

“They are really incredible actors and Shannon Murphy (the director) is a force – she’s so strong and so clever and so smart – and it’s just fantastic to be working with a young, female director. So I love the fact that I’m back with all these ‘youngsters’ who are all so talented,” says Carides smiling.

“It’s a black comedy but definitely has very moving moments as we get inside the heads of all four characters.”

Gia Carides in rehearsals for Beached

Gia Carides in rehearsals for Beached

As for how they will portray Arthur’s obesity, Murphy wants the company to keep that secret – and hopes that reviewers will refrain from giving it away so that it is a surprise for audiences. However, she doesn’t mind revealing that they are using cameras.

“I don’t want to spoil anything but are we are working with film so it’s very ambitious,” says Carides. “We are operating cameras, we are acting live within the scene and acting for the camera so there is a lot going on.”

Approached about the play by an email from Murphy, Carides says she loved the play as soon as she read it and was keen to work with Murphy, who she knows, describing her as “an extraordinary young director, definitely one to watch”.

As luck would have it the season coincided with Bridget’s school summer holidays.

“I grew up here so coming back to Australia for any work is always a really appealing idea,” she says.

Last time she was back she appeared in the 2011 TV drama series Small Time Gangster and in 2008 spent time in Byron Bay working on East of Everything.

“My daughter wasn’t in proper school yet at that point so it suited us as a family,” she says.

“Sometimes my husband will have work that fits into that time frame too so we’ll come out as a family and he’ll do that work. So we really just take it case by case (depending on) whoever gets offered what/when and we just try to work it out.”

Beached plays at the SBW Stables Theatre, July 19 – August 31. Bookings: 9361 8817 or griffintheatre.com.au

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 7

Samuel Dundas interview

Samuel Dundas as Marcello in La boheme for Opera Australia. Photo: Branco Gaica

Samuel Dundas as Marcello in La boheme for Opera Australia. Photo: Branco Gaica

Samuel Dundas is an exciting young baritone with Opera Australia, who for the past eight years has been steadily building an impressive career. On the face of it, things couldn’t have been going better.

But last year, while playing the sexually voracious Don Giovanni in an OzOpera tour, Dundas had an intimation that things wasn’t quite right.

“I hit this wall. I just wasn’t happy with my singing and it led to this sequence of events (with me beginning to) understand what was required and probably breaking down a whole bunch of conceptions I had about myself and my talent,” he says candidly.

“Whilst I never would have admitted it, I think I had some very inflated ideas of my skill set because of all the opportunities that had been given to me at a very early age. So in hindsight I think that was me going as far as I was going to go on natural talent without having to really address how I sang, how I thought about singing, technique, all those kinds of things.”

The real wake-up call came not long afterwards when he began coaching sessions for OA’s La bohème, in which he played Marcello in Sydney at the start of this year.

“I think there was a pivotal moment when I had my first coaching for La bohème and the coach said, ‘awful’. She meant that with fantastic honesty and it’s changed my life, let alone changed my perspective on my work and my voice,” says the 30-year old singer.

“Now it’s all I do. I want to talk about singing, I want to think about singing, I want to think about technique, I want to talk to as many people as I can and find out what they do, why they do it and if that’s right for me and apply it in the practice room and slowly but surely evolve.”

Dundas is currently playing the small role of the Gaoler in John Bell’s new production of Tosca for OA, followed soon by Sid in Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring.

Not only has he thrown himself into rehearsals with more passion than ever before but whenever he hasn’t been in the rehearsal room he has been working in a studio at the Opera Centre, often with a vocal coach.

He agrees to an interview during one of his days in the studio. Open and friendly, he talks with great frankness but without grandstanding in any way. Instead, he comes across as genuinely self-effacing.

“Looking back I realise that everything I’d done wasn’t as good as I’d thought it was – and I hope desperately that I’m not an arrogant person and that there are thoughts I would have to myself,” he says. “I would never think ‘oh, I’m amazing!’ or anything like that.”

His newfound commitment began last year as he prepared for La bohème and is clearly paying off, with his performance as Marcello receiving a nomination for Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in an Opera at this year’s Helpmann Awards (announced on July 29).

Dundas grew up in Melbourne. His mother loved music and played a lot of it to him and his brother Toby – who is now the drummer with Australian rock band The Temper Trap.

When he was young Dundas played piano and woodwind instruments but gave it all up for sport. Then when he was 16, his mother heard him singing around the house and suggested he take singing lessons.

“I genuinely didn’t want to do it but she worked at my high school and got the teacher to talk to me. One day we had a lesson and he said, ‘you’ve got to keep going with this’ and it went from there,” says Dundas.

Though his brother always wanted to be a rock star, Dundas says he didn’t consciously choose opera over pop music – it was just the way things turned out.

“Singing wasn’t something I was passionate about,” he says. “I just kind of did it because it was what people wanted me to do. I think my voice was always predisposed to classical music so I ended up going down this path. We joke in the family that Toby is the musician and I’m the cover band.”

He did a music degree, not because he particularly wanted to, but because he got a scholarship. Before he graduated, he was offered work with Opera Queensland where he made his professional debut in 2005. He then spent three years in the Victorian Opera’s Young Artist’s Program before joining OA’s Young Artist’s Program in 2010.

His roles for the company include, among others, Marcello, Fiorello in The Barber of Seville and Moralès in Carmen: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.

Samuel Dundas as Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte. Photo: Branco Gaica

Samuel Dundas as Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte. Photo: Branco Gaica

Last year while playing Guglielmo in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte he was featured on Barihunks, an online blog dedicated to “the sexiest baritone hunks in opera”, which regularly waxes lyrical about Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

Dundas admits with a laugh that he worked out “diligently” when he heard “that it would be shirts off” for Cosi.

“For eight months I did everything possible. One side of it is vanity and the other is trying to make the most of any opportunity,” he says.

“Now interestingly enough, I’m beginning to work out that there are some detriments vocally to going to the gym so I don’t go in the same way. I don’t think it necessarily affects people in the same way but certainly since I stopped drinking and going to the gym my voice has changed dramatically.”

He suspects that tighter muscles stop you breathing as well. “But each to your own, you make your choice. I try to stay as fit as possible without lifting too much.”

On his 30th birthday last November he decided to give up alcohol until La bohème opened on New Year’s Eve and then, when he felt so good without it, he decided to keep going until his birthday this year.

Whether it’s that or all the work on his technique, he says he has extended the range of his voice at the top end of his register by several notes.

“I have this quiet calm now that I’m doing all I can. I’m working as hard as I can and I want to play all my cards and leave nothing on the table and see what happens,” he says.

In Tosca – Puccini’s great drama of love, jealousy, sacrifice and betrayal – Dundas plays the Gaoler. It’s a very small role (he is also covering the Sacristan) but he doesn’t mind.

“Any chance to sing anything Puccini wrote makes me happy,” he says.

What’s more, he has relished the opportunity to watch singers like baritone John Wegner (who plays the evil Scarpia) in the rehearsal room.

The production, which is directed by John Bell, is set in the 1940s in Mussolini’s Italy.

“John made his intentions very clear on the first day that the characters were going to be as truthful as possible. I think that’s the way opera is going, so John is probably perfect for a show like this,” says Dundas.

“It’s a great opportunity to work with somebody who has a vast amount of experience and is very diligent and calculating in the way he creates character so in terms of a learning experience, it’s wonderful.”

In August, Dundas plays Sid in Britten’s musically complex but frolicsome opera Albert Herring. Set in an English village in Suffolk, a shy lad called Albert is crowned May Queen (or King) because none of the girls are considered virtuous enough.

Sid, meanwhile, is a butcher’s assistant who enjoys pre-marital sex with his girlfriend Nancy. He urges Albert to break free of his dominating mother and when Albert is crowned, slips rum into his lemonade sending Albert off on a night of debauchery.

“He’s kind of the one who sets up all the trouble,” says Dundas. “He is the ultimate contradiction (to Albert) because it’s a morality tale. I think that’s the great thing about being a baritone. You are always the bad guy or the cheeky one. I think it is so much more interesting to play those characters than being the good guy.”

Tosca plays at the Sydney Opera House until August 31; Albert Herring plays August 16 – 30. 

Post Script, July 29: It has just been announced that Samuel Dundas has won the Opera Foundation’s New York Scholarship and will be heading to the Big Apple to study with coaches there.