There’s only one measly sleep until Auckland University is again filled with its usual inhabitants – lengthy lectures and caffeine-powered students – but over the last couple of weeks the grounds has been the scene of something decidedly more fun. The 52nd season of Summer Shakespeare has set up shop on campus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set to play for one more week.
Having already asked director Michael Hurst for a few words of wisdom I sat down with Arlo Gibson and Amber-Rose Henshall, who play Demetrius and Puck respectively, to gather their thoughts on the play. We began by talking about theatre and criticism and how to make these things appealing to as many people as possible. We had a mutual dislike for anything too cryptic, which brang us to a discussion of the play, and playwright, in question.
Well, I’ll admit there are moments where I find Shakespeare pretty hard to understand.
Amber-Rose: We feel pretty stupid when we start rehearsals. I don’t know about Arlo, but I definitely do.
Arlo: We’re really lucky ‘cause we’ve got people around us who understand it completely.
Amber-Rose: They’re like encyclopedias. Not just Michael Hurst, who actually is an encyclopedia…
Arlo: I think that one of the most important things when it comes to acting something like that is you’ve really got to know exactly what you’re saying. So I like to write out abbreviations but at the same time the language is brilliant and if you take it for what it is – if you’re just visualising the images and stuff – it’s kind of simple to understand. And if you’ve got Google beside you [laughs], for something that’s specific to that period or whatever, it’s quite an amazing language to act in.
Amber-Rose: And it has to be acted – it’s made to be played. If you read Shakespeare like they make you do at school it’s hard work and it makes you feel stupid but it was written to be played, on the stage, or read or performed.
I remember at school we’d sit there for weeks and weeks and maybe by the end of the term we’d read the play.
Amber-Rose: Yeah, it makes no sense. There’s so much meaning behind the words and you miss it all completely. I do the same thing as Arlo, I write out line for line what they mean in my dialogue, if I feel like I need it – like in a monologue. Then you can learn it both ways and you’ve got the modern acting techniques you can put into it. It’s been a discovery process for me – it’s been a while since I’ve done Shakespeare. [Arlo’s] done a lot more recently than me.
Arlo: Do you want a little Shakespeare nerd fact? At Christmas, my Grandad who’s a fantasy literature professor says, ‘ Hey, do you want to know where Shakespeare got all of his tricks from?’ And he slammed down this tomb, essentially, and it was Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Shakespeare, as a kid, had to write it out from memory. He had to write out these epic poems and within that you find the germs of all of his stories. You can see where he got his imagery but he transformed it into conversationalist pieces that people still understand to this day. It’s great – Shakespeare is top notch. I rate him.
Amber-Rose: He gets the Arlo stamp of approval. That’s a very hard to win stamp.
Tell me a bit about your characters.
Arlo: Amber, you say a bit about who I play and then I will with who you play. Just to mix it up.
Amber-Rose: He plays third horse on the left.
Arlo: I’m really committed to it.
Amber: He has a great neigh. He plays Demetrius.
Arlo: And Amber plays Puck.
Amber: Who is – well was – a boy. He’s a naughty fairy. Well, not even a fairy – he’s based on so many folk-lore characters. He’s a playful spirit.
Arlo: Puck is the audience’s way in because he’s kind of supernatural in the way that he can break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. They’re really cool characters, they’re really fun. It’s an awesome position to have within a play where everyone’s governed by emotions.
Amber-Rose: I’m just a force of nature, I have free reign to do whatever. And that has its own unique challenges, like figuring out motives and reasons and depth of character; not just wanting to run around but have a depth that makes sense in relationships.
Arlo: I’m really stoked with my character. I’m sharing it with this mean as actor called Ryan Dulieu who I did The Actors Program with the year before last. So that’s been fun having to talk out where we’re both at with the same character – we both have different takes on it.
What’s the best advice Michael Hurst has given you?
Amber-Rose: Don’t be shit! [Laughs] Was that Michael?
Arlo: I think so. That’s a very good piece of advice. That’s quite a tricky question…
Amber-Rose: Arlo’s known him longer too.
Arlo: My parents have worked with him since I was a little kid so I grew up really admiring that guy he’s been a big influence on me as an actor. Specifically I think it’s been – not word for word – but, ‘Stop worrying’ was a really important one for me because as a person and as an actor I tend to think myself into unnecessary places and [Michael has] faith in me and he reminds me not to worry too much or over-think things. It’s a weird piece of advice but it meant a lot.
How is the show going?
Amber-Rose: At first it was weird having an audience. We’ve been each other’s audience – we’re a big cast, with all the fairies – the Marvellous company – there’s at least 30 people always there watching. It’s so weird having a different audience, they laugh in places we aren’t used to and it almost throws you. But it all makes sense with an audience.
Arlo: It’s also a return to how Shakespeare was originally performed; with that immediate audience around you and outside. It feels right.
Amber-Rose: More than it does in the theatre. It just does, I’ve always loved outdoor Shakespeare more. Something about the uncertainty of the weather or that sense of anything can happen. In LA I saw As You Like It in the zoo. During the second act a pack of coyotes started howling. The players are trying to yell over them and we were in hysterics laughing. Then one of the cast members yelled at them to shut up and then Touchstone, who’s kind of like the clown, started howling with them. That’s the joy of outdoor Summer Shakespeare.
Tell me a bit about working with the Marvellous group, who play the fairies.
Arlo: They’re so beautiful! Oh my god. They’ve got such a charisma about them it’s quite amazing having that many, I guess, senior citizens in the cast because it’s clear that each has their own amazing story and I think it’s giving them a lot of joy. You can see it when they’re on stage; they’re really loving going back to being kids again. They’re really excited to play and be mischievous and Michael is all for that so what you get is just gleeful abandon on stage, they’re darting round – you’ve got to see it.
It’s really great ‘cause they fully keep you in check. One day I’d just finished dress rehearsal and I was like, ‘Yeah I fucking nailed it, it was mean.’ I was walking round all stoked and a few of the crew come up to me and it were like, ‘It was really clear there was a lot of feeling in that last scene, but couldn’t hear it. So just think about that.’ And I was like, ‘Okay…’ But it’s awesome! So great. I love it.
Amber-Rose: I’ve had notes from the fairies. They’ve got so much experience. They’ve had incredible careers. One of them was a Bluebell in Paris, one of the original kicking girls. [At this point Amber does a brilliant little can-can hand action]. They’re so cool.
What other projects have you been involved in recently?
Arlo: I’m doing Step Dave and it’s going well. I’ve done my first week on it and it’s good to be back and it’s exciting. I’m doing a play called Ushers next, after this. I go into rehearsal next week. And just trying to figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my year. I’ve got quite a big decision to make so I’m just at that point really, deciding whether I leave or stay.
Do you feel like there’s quite a lot going on in Auckland?
Arlo: There is quite a lot happening in Auckland… I don’t know how long it’s going to take me but eventually I want to get overseas and do some more training. I also want to travel and see the world. There’s acting and then there’s me living my life as a real human being and I’m kind of more interested in that. Acting’s cool but there’s other stuff.
Amber-Rose: You’ve got time too. You can do both – you already are.
Arlo: It’s cool. I’m really blessed in my life at the moment. I’m stoked.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing until the 7th of March. You can get tickets here.