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Left: Penny Ashton in The Tempestuous. Right: Michael Hurst in King Lear. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
Left: Penny Ashton in The Tempestuous. Right: Michael Hurst in King Lear. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureJune 10, 2023

Shakespeare is anything but cancelled in Auckland right now

Left: Penny Ashton in The Tempestuous. Right: Michael Hurst in King Lear. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
Left: Penny Ashton in The Tempestuous. Right: Michael Hurst in King Lear. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

The bard’s work is well and truly alive in Tāmaki Makaurau, with two very different new productions set to open next week.

Shakespeare might be long dead, but his work is still well and truly alive. Just last week, the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival played in Wellington, to little media coverage, despite the uproar its alleged cancellation caused towards the end of last year. Students across the country are preparing to write essays on, or even perform, his work for their mid-year exams. Some 90s kid is avidly listening to the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack on Spotify right now.

The bard’s work is so alive and well, in fact, that productions of two of his plays are opening on the same day next week: June 13. One of these is Auckland Theatre Company’s King Lear, about a king going mad dividing his power and wealth between his daughters (and yes, you can be sure that the marketing is clinging to Succession as closely as possible). The other is Penny Ashton’s The Tempestuous, a solo comedy show that pays tribute to, borrows shamelessly from, and injects feminism into the bard’s work.

The two shows couldn’t be more different, but both come from the same place of love and respect for arguably the greatest (English-speaking, male, white…) playwright to have ever lived.

Michael Hurst as the titular Lear in ATC’s King Lear. (Photo: Andi Crown Photography)

Stepping into the rehearsal room for King Lear is like stepping into a military operation. ATC’s cavernous Dominion Road rehearsal space is filled with upwards of 20 people waiting to go into another run of the play’s first hour. Designers diligently take notes, Jennifer Ward-Lealand peers at her iPad over chic glasses, the youth company ensemble idle to the left. On the edges of the room hang costumes, concept drawings and temporary props that will be replaced by the real thing in due course.

Make no mistake: this is not a rehearsal of a play, this is a rehearsal of a production.

Before the run starts, co-directors Michael Hurst and Benjamin Kilby-Henson huddle onstage together. Within five minutes of arriving, I’m watching the play’s most famous scene, give or take a heath and a storm. The daughters (played by Andi Crown, Jessie Lawrence and Hannah Tayb) tell their father, Lear, how much they love him. It’s famous for a reason: it’s really damn good.

The first hour runs energetically, as any play in the third week of rehearsal often does. Actors have moved into the houses that are their roles, and they’re in the midst of unpacking the furniture, doing the decorating, figuring out where everything goes. That process takes a step up with Shakespeare, though. The furniture and the decoration is already there – all an actor has to do is live in it authentically.

This isn’t Hurst’s first go-around with this particular play – in fact, it’s his fifth. He’s directed it twice (once in the 90s set in Ancient Babylon, then at Circa in 2016 set in World War Two) and performed in it three times, but this is his first time playing the titular King himself.  

When ATC’s chief executive Jonathan Bielski suggested acting in King Lear to him and asked who was going to direct it, Hurst went: “Um, me.”

Beyond the concept he had, he knew he’d be an asset to a production – the play is in him, he knows it so well, he’s one of our most well-known interpreters of Shakespeare, but even even then he know he couldn’t do it alone – to quote Chicago, another show Hurst has directed – and that’s when Kilby-Henson came along.

“Ben said, ‘I like the word ‘with’’, and I went, ‘That’s it! That’s what I want to do!’”

This is Kilby-Henson’s first tussle with the play, and what’s been so useful for him is that Hurst knows it so well. “It means we can keep the text at the core, and as long as what the text is saying has unlocked your ideas with integrity, you can keep opening these doors of opportunity in how to approach it,” he says.

Knowing the play so well also means that Hurst knows how to manipulate and interpret the text, but also how to dive deep into it, to do some “proper acting”. “While the script is infinitely powerful and interpretable,” Hurst says. “It’s also got limits because the pace of Shakespeare is the pace of Shakespeare. It’s not the pace of the actor, it’s the pace of the actor achieving Shakespeare.”

The cast of Auckland Theatre Company’s production of King Lear. (Photo: Supplied)

Luckily for them, after a casting process that went on for the better part of a year, they’ve put together a cast they can trust – a mixture of company mainstays (Cameron Rhodes, Fasitua Amosa, the aforementioned Ward-Lealand) and relative newcomers (Hannah Tayeb, Hester Ullyart, Beatriz Romily).

Kilby-Henson couldn’t be more enthused. “Everybody else’s working out what to do around [Hurst], because you’ve got the lead role already at performance level.”

Hurst adds, “That doesn’t mean to say that I can’t be directed! I’m begging for that. Nobody’s going to be as brilliant as the play. There’s the perfect Lear out there. We’ll probably never see it, but by God, we’ll try and go for it!”

When the run is over, actors sit around for notes. Kilby-Henson and Hurst trade off notes for the feedback, with Hurst occasionally slipping out of the role of director – already having slipped out of Lear – and into the role of Shakespeare scholar, explaining one thing or other. The cast listen patiently. It’s a reminder that despite all of the production, the planning, the sheer scale of the thing, King Lear is still just a play.

Penny Ashton, writer and performer of The Tempestuous. (Photo: Kate Little Photography)

The rehearsal room for The Tempestuous – four floors up in Karangahape Road’s historic Samoa House – could hardly be more different. Not only could it fit into ATC’s rehearsal room several times over, it could fit quite cleanly inside the massive digital billboard of King Lear that can be seen from the window.

When I sit in on rehearsal, Penny Ashton is a week out from opening the show, the third in her unofficial literary trilogy of shows, after shows riffing on Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. This show has become a verifiable brand for Ashton. These virtuosic solo shows see her playing multiple characters, donning multiple wigs (sometimes literally), and filling a venue wall to wall with gags, puns and jokes. These shows have taken Ashton around the world and solidified an avid fan base which lines up for her merch (fridge magnets and tea towels) after the show.

When Ashton started working on The Tempestuous, she knew two things: it had to be a woman’s story, and it had to have crossdressing. “I’ve become more and more fucked off that women were perceived as bags of menstrual breeding, that was all they were good for, so you had to protect them, or hide them, or whatever. That’s where the story came from.”

Ashton’s shows in this trilogy have a formula. There’s always a workshop to shape the story, to define the characters, and then she works on the script for several months, harvesting jokes as she goes.

Most crucially? “You don’t want to shit all over the fans, because they’re your audience.”

Working with Shakespeare’s lines has given Ashton something she hasn’t had with Austen or Dickens, though. “The quotes are so famous that I can play with them, like ‘What man through yonder window bakes with yeast and a bun’, whereas with Austen and Dickens I had to quote them in full. “

“As a contributor to the English language of idiom, the man is fucking phenomenal,” she says. “So I was going through and picking out the lines and getting idiom, idiom, idiom.”

I watch about five minutes of the show. Ashton works with an outside eye, who stops her mid-scene, re-directs her, and sets her on her bawdy way again. It’s a thrilling thing to watch: someone working their way to the best version of their own joke, the best way to shift character, the best road to a laugh. It’s a testament not just to Ashton’s skill, but her drive – it takes a lot to produce, perform and tour your own solos. 

Even so, this is still a step up for her. Doing Austen was “lots of cups of tea, lots of poncing around”, Dickens was “a bit more child murder”. Now she’s throwing herself around with sword fights and witchery. “I’m 10 years older than when I was doing Austen, so I’m making my life very difficult, but it’s quite exciting!”

“I’m looking forward to actually delivering a lot of Shakespeare’s gorgeous and moving language. He has a lot of incomprehensible things – but then comes the delightful poetry and comedy!”

King Lear plays until July 9 at the ASB Waterfront Theatre. The Tempestuous plays at Basement Theatre until June 17.

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