Grabbing a drink of cold water in the early hours as Sydney’s latest heatwave began, I flicked the radio on to hear an ad for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), currently enjoying a season at the Sydney Opera House. It’s a humorous take on “all 37 plays in 97 minutes” – originally the work of a few mates knocking around “the woods of Northern California” who would perform at “Renaissance Fairs (ramshackle festivals where a bunch of hippies and bikers recreate what they think an English village would have looked like in Elizabethan times” (according to the programme).
Having just seen a performance, the ad was just annoying. Not funny, barely representative of the production, and unlikely have enticed me to see the show if I did not already know about it. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is an excellent parody, and in this case performed by a fine cast of comedians – Greg Fleet, Damian Callinan and John Leary (I guess Leary is technically a comic actor). The ad quoted from Romeo and Juliet: “What light from yonder window breaks?” at which point the cast (or the guys in the dubbing studio at the radio station, I daresay) adopt hip-hop accents to repeat ‘Break! Break! Break!’ Painful. There would be an almost endless choice of soundbites to grab that would be funnier, and more appealing to a broader audience. In the Romeo and Juliet section, for example, there is this lovely parody:
By any other name would smell as sweet
Sure, to read it on the page, it’s almost groan-worthy. In performance, it was hilarious – and there was a wave of audience laughter to prove it. Why not take a sound feed from the mixing desk, with a couple of ceiling mics over the audience? There would be countless random samples to grab that would sound good, be genuinely funny, and convince a broad potential audience of the quality of the production.
Although it has enjoyed a season at least one other time since, the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) had a run some eight years ago, around about this time, again at the Opera House. That production, also a showcase the talents of Greg Fleet, included (comic) actors Darren Gilshenan and Justin Melvey, and I got to talk to Fleety about it before the run began. It wasn’t the first time I’d interviewed Fleety – but it was the first face-to-face interview I’d had the pleasure of undertaking with him. Given the production runs to the end of January, it'sas good an excuse as any to run that interview now.
What a piece of work is Fleety
“I’m a NIDA reject, rather than a NIDA graduate – a NIDA expellee,” Greg Fleet points out over a cup of coffee. And now that I think about it, I’m not surprised: when I used the word ‘thespian’ in front of Fleety, he got the giggles. This is a comic turned actor, and not the other way around. As Greg tells it, prior to being accepted to the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, fresh out of boarding school, had had spent a year “running amok.” Subsequently living with his girlfriend and “experimenting with various things”, Fleet was unready to settle down and work. Playwright Nick Enright, then Head of Acting at NIDA, was the one who took Greg aside for “the final conversation”. The really weird thing, according to Fleet, was that when it was clear that he had no idea what it was that he was going to do next, Enright suggested that he could still go off and do “the comedy thing” if he was so inclined.
“I just went, ‘whoah; what are you talking about?’” Fleety explains.” I had absolutely no interest in doing comedy at all. I thought, ‘this man’s insane… as well as frightening.’” Of course, a few years later, ‘the comedy thing’ was exactly what Fleet went off and did. “He somehow knew that that was what I was going to do,” Greg says, and as a result, Nick Enright remains one of the few people Greg Fleet finds truly intimidating. “If I saw him today,” he confesses, “I’d still desperately try to please him.”
Were Nick Enright to come across Fleety now, he’d have reason to be pleased. For although Greg Fleet pursued the ‘comedy thing’, he kept going until his comedy started to evolve into drama, appearing in productions of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and more importantly. More importantly, he devised solo comedy shows such as Underwater World and Scary, giving him the opportunity to take the stage as characters. Initially, Fleety claims, he felt he “had a bit of a problem” with character-driven comedy; he preferred to be saying what he thought as Greg Fleet. Then, he says, he discovered the ‘comic character’ was a mode of performance that he could “sneak into”. Now he admits that he was often ‘sneaking into’ characters even in his earliest shows. “It wasn’t really acting,” he wishes to stress, just “pretending to be other people and doing what they did.” Hang on, Greg, this sounds suspiciously like ‘acting’.
In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Greg Fleet is pretending to be lots of people, as are his fellow cast members, comic actor Darren Gilshenan and Logie-winning Home and Away star Justin Melvey. Fleety’s only regret is that his longest time off-stage is a mere twenty seconds. “It’s the only show I’ve ever done where I don’t even have time to have a cigarette, so I’m freaking out.” The situation is worse for Gilshenan, though, whose characters include all the female roles. “He’s got to do a lot more really quick changes,” Fleet observes. “He’s virtually running the whole time, which amuses me.”
His inability to ‘frock up’ like Gilshenan has not made Fleety jealous. In the past he’s had the opportunity to do the same, and more: “I’ve ‘nuded up’ in the name of comedy!” he says. But when Fleet played Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was “a man pretending to be a woman”. With Gilshenan, he says, “you can’t tell the difference. It’s uncanny.” Right on cue, a gorgeous waitress delivers another coffee to the table, and Fleet announces that “that was Darren Gilshenan, just dropped in playing a woman.”
Fleet’s first contact with The Complete Works of Shakespeare came about “ages ago” when the comedy was first produced. “I did a really terrible audition and didn’t get the part,” he admits. The show went on to do very well both here and overseas. When it was decided to revive The Complete Works… locally, Fleety, who by now had a strong comedic profile, got a guernsey almost automatically. “They didn’t get me to audition, thank God, they just said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ So I said, ‘All right’.” When the decision to get Fleety came through, Greg happened to be in England, appearing in the final episodes of Time Gentlemen Please, a pub-based sitcom that has yet to appear on Australian television. Fleety plays the Aussie yob backpacker boyfriend of Julia Sawalha. When news of this breaks, Fleet acknowledges, “everyone in the world will be going, ‘I must kill Greg Fleet!’”
The Complete Works of Shakespeare provides the “perfect role” for Fleet. “There are bits in it where I’m left on stage, almost in a stand-up capacity, having to try to improvise my way out of situations,” he says. And, he explains, it is well cast: Gilshenan plays lots of characters, “which he’s really good at”, and Melvey, “the young, handsome one”, gets to play Hamlet.
Fleety insists that this surfeit of Shakespeare will not lead his appetite for the Bard to sicken, and so die. Instead, he explains, “it keeps piquing my interest– as it will for the audience – because these tiny bits make you want to go and read the play or do more of it.”
Well here’s the obvious challenge for Nick Enright: see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare at the Opera House Play House Theatre and then direct Fleety in some Shakespeare thereafter.
Though alive and well at the time of publication of the interview, Nick Enright has passed away. So while the production is running in the same venue, the article’s closing is from the earlier production’s run, and is not intended to cause offence or distress.
And I suppose I’d better explain the heading…