August 13, 1988

A Mid-Winter Night’s Comedy

Murray Bramwell talks with director Geoffrey Rush and actors Paul Blackwell and Tony Taylor about The Popular Mechanicals, which opens for funny business in the Playhouse tonight.

They have become known as the Rude Mechanicals. They are the artisans led by the redoubtable Peter Quince who perform The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe for the royal court in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Their play is theatrically preposterous, hilarious, endearing and contains some of the greatest clowning in all of English literature.

Now, 412 years later, the real story can be told – the heartache, the fears, the loves, hopes and even the dreams of Quince’s troupe are chronicled in their very own spin-off show, The Popular Mechanicals, scripted by Keith Robinson, Tony Taylor, Geoffrey Rush and someone called William Shakespeare. The show was commissioned last year for Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre and opened last December amid rowdy scenes of jubilation and critical high praise. Tony Taylor, well-known for his performance as Smike in the STC production of Nicholas Nickleby and last seen in Adelaide in the State Opera’s Sweeney Todd, recalls how the Mechanicals came about.

“We were working on a Shakespeare season at the Wharf Theatre,” he said. “It was back-to-back theatre, we performed one play and rehearsed the other at the same time.

“At the end of the plays Henry IV and Hamlet, we did an Elizabethan jig which is like a skit, an afterpiece written in doggerel. They were like little custards at the end of the main meal, to send the audience back into the street feeling a little less like killing themselves after seeing Hamlet.

“At the height of their popularity in Elizabethan times people used to come in just to see the jig at the end of the show. Eventually they got so rude and bawdy they were banned. We did two jigs, Singing Simkin, a story adapted from Chaucer and a second one, which I wrote in one night, called The Widow’s Wind. They were a great success and we then thought what would it be like to have a whole evening of Elizabethan comedies about jealousy and adultery and misers and farts and all the rest of it.

“Then I had this brainwave that we could use the mechanicals out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and do what Tom Stoppard had done with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet. We would stick to the four scenes Shakespeare wrote for The Mechanicals and then the play would be about what happens to the five would-be actors when Bottom, the weaver, is changed into an ass and taken away to cavort with Titania the Queen of the fairies.”

In Taylor’s plot, the mechanicals went through their repertoire to see if they could turn on a show for the Prince and Princess if Bottom didn’t come back. Shakespeare’s works were mined for dialogue for the characters.

“It was an exercise in making plagiarism an art form,” he said.

Enter Geoffrey Rush, director, dramatist and certainly no fool when it comes to comedy. After some intensive script work the writers dispersed. There were lots of phone calls and bright ideas but the main frame was agreed upon.

“I liked the idea of clowns using verse,” observed Rush, “And we didn’t choose famous speeches necessarily. We pinched lesser known bits because they were marvellous descriptions of something or were good slang. But I also wanted the big themes to be there.

“These people live in a world which celebrates the marvellous in everyday events which we forget to do. They live in a funny world, an olde worlde Elizabethan time when life was not so pressured and more poetic. The play is in a false clown language, an invented Elizabethan modern language and we were specifically not using famous quotations because we didn’t want people to think it was smart arse. The clawing is more ·innocent than that.”

Even Rush is a little surprised by the remarkable success of the play. “It’s hard to account for why it is so basically funny. There’s no verbal wit, no obvious great ideas – but of course there are because Shakespeare was very interested in his clowns. It’s also a very carefully structured piece and I think there is an undercurrent to it which is when great clowning taps the madness of the human condition.

“You think: ‘I’m a funny little primate and I’ve got all those big thoughts and most of then I don’t reach or fulfil, or even get a chance to fully explore and so I laugh or drink or fart my life away.’ That’s what Shakespeare writes about ordinariness, not the kings, not the nobles, not the fairies, not the great people, but the ordinary ones.

“But I think that the play is really about having to get up in front of people and do things, and we all do that in any position in real life – or avoid it if we can, and what happens in this case is that these six ill-equipped but rather adorable mortals decide to put on a play. Their life isn’t to do with performing but they decide to do it for a Royal wedding like Charles and Di’s. They think it will be in a little gold palace with the king and queen and maybe 40 people and discover, in modern terms, it’s like going into the Sydney Entertainment Centre with 12,000 people and it’s all on global television. And we watch their mortification, their panic and their resilience.”

After the Sydney season, The Mechanicals had rather a different time in Melbourne. Different demographics, says Rush diplomatically. It received disparaging reviews which didn’t help either.

“I think at the core of it they were offended. It is a harmless piece I thought, but then all the great writers on the human condition – your Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Joyce – none of them avoid the poo-factor. Shakespeare certainly didn’t. And clowns live in a mental landscape of someone between age three and 10. They still have this wonderful, delirious capacity for fiddling with themselves and being obsessed.”

This production includes Belvoir Street originals Gillian Hyde as Starveling, Keith Robinson as Quince, Peter Rowley as Bottom and Tony Taylor as Flute. Monica Maugham replaces Kerry Walker whose Tom Snout first appeared in the State Theatre Company’s production of Dream five years ago.

Adelaide actor Paul Blackwell, who again plays Snug the Joiner, describes working on the play: “It requires a lot of energy to do it. When we decided to use rubber noses it meant that we couldn’t just put them on and stand there. You’ve got to keep working at it to keep it alive.

“There are a lot of different routines, ensemble clowning work. But first you have to find your own character. You have to invent a very physical, large, over-the-top, loud thing and then once you’ve got . that worked out you can begin to work our the orchestrated group stuff.

“There are a lot of routines which audiences will recognise – old jokes, face-pulling and all that. But there is also a reality despite that, an interplay between the characters; moments which are quieter and stiller.”

It is this gentler, more poetic side which Rush wants to present and which Taylor and Robinson emphasise by the use of Bottom’s Dream speech. Says Rush: “The scene when Bottom meets Titania is one of the great bits of art. It’s about someone who comes back having had a night of wild sex with the Queen of the Fairies. Whether he dreamt it or whether he did it, whether he was a donkey or not, or his member that big, whether his prowess was that extraordinary, or her adoration for him was total – whatever, it is fantasyland and he can’t describe it because it is in his dreams.

“His dream speech is jumbled but beautiful. He says: ‘I can’t tell you but I’ll get someone to write a play about it.’ And that’s what plays are.”

The Advertiser, August 13, 1988, p.7.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment