Bard on the Beach
Balmoral Beach Band Rotunda
Season: 16 January – 28 February (On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights)
Bookings: Tickets are currently available to be bought at the door
For more information: www.bardonthebeach.net
Click here to read a review of the show!
I sat down with Tim van Zuylen and Josh Wiseman to scale conversation matter from the dichotomy of life to Stoppard’s confounding use of language, as they prepare for the Bard on the Beach production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (R&G). Tim plays Rosencrantz and Josh plays Guildenstern in the show, opening on the 16th January.
Emily: First up, in a punchy line, how would you describe the play?
Josh: A cacophony of misunderstandings and wordplay, and constantly getting confused both as actors and as characters.
Tim: When you remove the point of someone’s existence, what do they do?
Emily: What have been some of these discoveries so far?
Josh: One of the big ones that we’ve disagreed on is what’s going on in the play in terms of chronology. I’ve read the play from the perspective that R&G are already dead and the play is set in their post-life existence, whatever that may be, be it heaven or hell, and they’re on a cycle, on a loop.
Emily: Like purgatory?
Josh: Exactly! Exactly, a purgatory existence where they keep making the same discoveries over and over again, and as soon as the play finishes it resets itself. Tim: Yeah, I always thought it was about getting two characters whose only purpose in life was being written into the story of Hamlet, and showing what these characters do when they have nothing to do. What is life when you take away its action? Is it life to just sit and breathe, or do you have to be ‘doing’ and using your life for a purpose? And I think that for R&G, there are moments when we just sit there on stage and the characters are just existing, there’s no real life to it. They only become real ‘human’ characters when they’re given a purpose to make them act…until they get stuck again.
Emily: So it’s only external factors that provide this purpose?
Josh: Yes, so there are pockets of action. Basically our lives are being railroaded by the actions of Hamlet and the external forces. There’s a large section of the play where we’re on a boat, and they talk about the boat being like life, where you’re able to move around within constraints, and you can make choices within constraints, but ultimately you can’t get off the boat, because you’re at sea and you’re only controlled by these external forces being the wind and currents. This is representative of the narrative of Hamlet, and so it’s got this dichotomy the whole way through the play. Stoppard writes incredibly rich symbolism and metaphors and layer upon layer of confounding detail, which is awesome and fun to discover.
Josh: Stoppard’s writing is very academic and very explorative of the themes in Hamlet, in terms of life and death in particular, so the more you know about Hamlet, the more you can get out of R&G. But equally, there’s enough comedy that you don’t have to have that knowledge of Hamlet to enjoy R&G. The way that he uses puns and wordplay is so engaging regardless of your understanding of Hamlet that the play works on multiple levels. It’s a massive comedy, and yet we have discovered its tragedy as well, and there are beautiful character journeys for both of our characters that emulates that journey.
Tim: Depending on which you have seen first or know better [Hamlet or R&G], it gives you a perspective on the whole play itself, not just the individual scenes. If you are well-versed in Hamlet, not R&G to the same extent, you might be seeing R&G more from the outside. You’re thinking ‘Okay, we know what’s going to happen. This is his big moment – he’s doing his “To be or not to be” guys! Why are you laughing at him in the background?’ and so your response is more directed at us [R&G]. Whereas if you don’t know Hamlet, you’ll definitely be on the journey with R&G.
Emily: So you were saying earlier, about the show being a mix of tragedy and comedy, why do you think so many comedies deal with dark themes, and yet they work? These two notions seem to be at odds with each other, yet why do you think they work so well?
Tim: Comedy is such a fantastic vehicle for carrying strong messages, that people can’t handle being thrown at them directly. The comedy breaks it down for audiences who are a part of the experience, they’re laughing along, and then when a character says something really deep like, ‘Oh my God we’re going to die-'
Josh: - Good writing. I don’t think that line is actually in there. (Laughs)
Tim: I’m insulting Stoppard a little bit. But when some of the big monologues come out, the audience is already close to the action because of the comedy, and they’re with us. Rather than if it’s full on tragedy all the time, people might sit back, thinking ‘this is really confronting’, and the walls come up.
Josh: Someone once said that comedy is tragedy played at double speed.
Tim: Oh, look at you! (Laughs)
Josh: If you can make an audience laugh with you, then they’re more likely to cry with you as well. The school of Brechtian theatre is based on that, you draw people in and then highlight, actually, we’re dealing with something quite heavy here. When you’re talking about life and death, which R&G does, you’re dealing with heavy stuff, but it makes it more accessible if you do it through humour.
Emily: For sure, and I think this is shown in the work of comedians such as Sacha Baron Cohen. He puts it forward as a comedy, and people are happy to laugh along. And this allows people to let their guard down and reveal their prejudices, and it’s a way of giving yourself over to the serious topic of discussion.
Josh: Absolutely, and in Australia black comedy is a part of our culture, massively. It’s why Stoppard works so well here. Look at the Chasers, they talked about sensitive issues, like with the G20, but it was hilarious. It’s only after enjoying the humour that you rethink it and can’t believe you were laughing about that.
Emily: You were talking before about meaning in theatre, and I believe the Player discusses in R&G that you don’t have meaning as a performer, without an audience. How do you see the actor-audience relationship come forth?
Josh: Often in theatre you feel as if the actors are presenting something to you, but Stoppard has written the play so that the audience isn’t just a spectator but a participant, because you’re discovering just as the characters are discovering.
Tim: R&G use a lot of ‘we’ and ‘they’, which deliberately includes the audience. It’s referring to more than just R&G.
Emily: Is it like an ‘us and them’ situation is created, but ‘us’ refers to R&G and the audience together?
Tim: Yes exactly, and we try and make that clear early on that we are on the audience’s side.
Josh: Through staging, we break the fourth wall a lot. We include asides, which is direct address.
Tim: There’s lots of ‘Make sure you don’t go anywhere, we still know you’re there! We don’t know what’s going on, and you probably don’t either, but let’s just enjoy it together.’
Emily: Of course, the theatre company is called Bard on the Beach. How does the beach setting change the theatrical experience?
Josh: You are so much more vulnerable to the elements and also audience interaction. You aren’t able to rely on big spectacles with scene, set and lighting changes to a dramatic extent. At the beach it can be a strain vocally, to have the projection to hit the ‘back row’.
Tim: I think the biggest difference that will play into our hands especially for R&G is that when you’re watching a play in the theatre, it’s very much that ‘they’re there, and they’re doing their thing, on the stage.’ As soon as you take theatre outside, the line between stage and audience is blurred completely because very rarely do you have a definitive line. I think this will help give the effect of the action in R&G not taking place in any specific location. Sitting in the audience will be a lot more inclusive.
Emily: Going back to some of our discussion of the more serious themes in the play, I would assume that Stoppard brought some of his personal ruminations on life into the play whilst writing. While life affects the crafting of theatre, how do you think that theatre then influences people’s expectations of reality?
Josh: All theatre is heightened reality, that’s why it’s called drama. And sure, you’re watching a version as close to reality as you can create on stage, but you’re seeing dramatic moments. The investment comes through the high stakes in the scenes. Linking that to what R&G provides, you kind of have the best of both worlds, because the stakes are as high as they get. But the naturalism of the way the dialogue is written in terms of conversation and getting confused and fumbling your way through it is indicative of that human experience of life. It is relatable because these characters are flawed and not just archetypes of the hero that you get in melodrama. People go to the theatre to see people experience life and to experience those big emotions, and to go to places that people are afraid to go to themselves.
You can catch the show at the Balmoral Beach Band Rotunda from 16th January to 28th February on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.