You could say the third week of June was a riot of dames. And I meant to simply talk about these but then a car knocked my bike down on Northbourne Avenue necessitating a lovely day amid the theatre of Canberra Hospital emergency and time moved on while a bit of healing went on and I went to the Young People Arts Australia Symposium at Casula among the bellbirds and Michael Hurst brought his version of Shakespeare’s boys into town, not the young ones who are boys playing girls pretending to be boys but the boys with problems, like Hamlet and Macbeth and Lear and Othello.
Dame Edna Everage owes more than something to the panto dame but Paul Capsis in Angela’s Kitchen was echoing the old theatrical tradition of men and boys playing girls and women.
Dame Edna is a lovely grotesque like the old Australian panto dames, Buster Fiddess or Johnny Lockwood. You always know there is a bloke underneath.
More deeply buried in the case of Dame Edna, however; Lockwood and Fiddess always had a hearty whiff of five o’clock shadow about them in a way that Dame Edna does not. Edna’s more elegant, more genuinely conscious of a feminine propriety, even when she is being most stroppy with an audience member and slapping down the would-be comedians.
Paul Capsis playing his grandmother Angela (and other female relatives) in Angela’s Kitchen in the same week was something different, a genuine and serious playing of gender as role. Which is not to say that Edna isn’t doing this but she’s working in a comic vein where delicate exaggeration is the go. Capsis mirrors his female relatives with an accuracy that makes you wonder what he would be like as Rosalind or Beatrice or even Juliet. He knows in detail how an aunt lights a cigarette and when at the end he comes out of the central cupboard between the ghostly projected images of old Malta in a red dress that is accurately cut in the lines of the late 40s and early 50s it’s the woman that was his grandmother, the woman who came from Malta in 1948 and made a life in Sydney. The recreation of her deep influence on his life is absorbing, strong and moving.
NZ actor Michael Hurst in Frequently Asked Questions was perhaps off in Rosencrantz and Guildensern Are Dead territory where the lads gather desperately trying to work out the secrets of existence. An actor playing Hamlet in a dreadful wig wonders if it is all worth a candle, then Hamlet wonders it, then Macbeth gets in the act, then Lear and Othello add their peculiar immaturities to a script which is particularly fun if you know your Shakespeare. One bloke playing the lot is a bravura act crowned by a line in stage fighting that reminded me of the old Tivoli’s ‘wrestling Eskimos.’ I don’t know if this act has surfaced yet on any of the Someone Somewhere Must Have Talent shows but it used to consist of what looked like two small wrestling Eskimos until it was revealed at the end of the act as one bloke in a cunning costume. Hurst does something akin without the cunning costume but with a lot of clever stage fighting and a co-operative lounge chair.
It isn’t all comedy, however, with the Dane being particularly vulnerable and Macbeth showing a chilling unprincipled savagery in a starkly lit sequence direct to the audience. The writing goes past the jokes and into some fairly black territory. Whether the wigged actor survives all of this is as unanswered a question as ‘To be or not to be’.
Angela’s Kitchen and Frequently Asked Questions have both been part of the splendid Solo at The Street Theatre series of which there is one more to come, Boy Girl Wall starting August 22.
Dame Edna says that’s her farewell tour and Sandy Stone certainly ascended to heaven (or at least the flies) in a glowing white armchair in Eat Pray Laugh but Capsis comes back for one night on August 3 as a musician with Make Me a King as part of the Capital Jazz Project and I bet he’s excellent there as well.
We could also certainly do with more of Hurst’s quirkily powerful brand of theatre. It’s always been clear to me from the oddments of NZ film and TV that penetrate here that good things go on over there and Frequently Asked Questions proves it.