“The Chaser’s War on Shakespeare” by Benito Di Fonzo.
While awaiting Dead Caesar composer Andrew Hansen’s emergence from an ABC editing suite I watch the play’s author Chris Taylor and Chaser cohort Craig Reucassel rehearse links for that evenings show. Reucassel is confused by Taylor’s joke concerning the Dalai Lama’s MySpace site and it’s ubiquitous creator Tom.
Taylor tells Reucassel not to worry, “the kids will find it funny.”
His approach to writing his debut play was not a million miles away.
“I went to a whole lot of plays in a row that were just hard work,” says Taylor, “It struck me that there was a hole in the market for a good crowd-pleaser, so I wanted to put on something that was very undemanding of it’s audience, and just a bit of silly feel-good nonsense. Even I was surprised at how Revue-like and unsophisticated it is. It’s the most undergraduate thing I’ve written since Uni. I grew up loving Life of Brian and the Python stuff and I’ve never been able to write that type of humour for the Chaser because [it’s] set in the real world, it just wouldn’t work, whereas I could do it on stage.”
Rumour has it the idea was first mooted by Wharf2Loud Artistic Director Brendan Cowell in the early hours of a bender.
“The way he recalls it is I was begging him to give me a slot, as I actually recall it was somewhere between the two. We were definitely in The Abercrombie Hotel, that has been verified by at least four barmen and a cleaner. [Cowell] and I write very different shows but we have a mutual interest in getting young people to the theatre and convincing them that it needn’t be a hard night out, it can be enjoyable and engaging.”
Taylor chose to satirise Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a way of commenting on both politics and theatre itself.
“I’d always had the idea, even back in Year 9, that it was a great story, but Shakespeare made the fundamental mistake of making it a tragedy. Even back then I could see the potential for quite a satirical political fable in there, these guys running around stabbing each other wearing togas. I play up the whole analogy between Caesar as toppled dictator and Saddam Hussein. The Roman plotters are like the Coalition of The Willing, particularly Bush and Rumsfeld, the way they thought they were doing a good thing by getting rid of a dictator but actually plummeted a country into civil war. I was keen to make that analogy without laying it on too thick.”
Taylor discovered writing for the stage a very different process to TV and radio.
“No one ever really analyses the lines I write in a Chaser script, whereas it was fascinating to see these NIDA trained actors torturing themselves in analysing what essentially amounted to a knob joke. I thought I could just break their habits and convince them to work my way but what happened was the reverse and eventually I saw method in the way they’d been trained and it made me a lot more disciplined with the rewrites. You still get to the knob joke but you’ve got to be a bit smarter about how you get there.”
Andrew Hansen, who along with a kazooist is the live orchestra for the show, admits he was worried when he first heard Taylor was writing a play.
“In the Chaser group I tend to play the more low-brow stupid stuff,” says Hansen. “Chris is good at writing dry, satirical, clever stuff and I was terribly worried that Dead Caesar was going to be dry and clever, it was an enormous relief when I discovered that it was this drunken bawdy farce.”
Hansen also had his fear of his fellow actors to confront.
“There was a moment with the dress rehearsal where Ben Borgia [who plays Brutus] said to me ‘I’ve brought 20 friends, all NIDA graduates,’ and when I heard this my bowels loosened. I thought god they’re going to go ‘what is this upstart comedian doing in the theatre? Get out!’”
Does he appreciate the political allegory?
“I’m told there are some allegorical moments, audience members have told me, I haven’t spotted them myself. It’s just a huge amount of fun and incredibly entertaining, to me that’s meaning in itself.”
By Chris Taylor.
Composer Andrew Hansen.
Directed by Tamara Cook.
With Ben Borgia, Alan Dukes, Andrew Hansen, John Leary, Ewen Leslie, Toby Moore, Monica Sayers.
Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company.
4 July – 21 July.
$15 - $34
Bookings (02) 9250 1777 www.sydneytheatre.com.au