No Holds Bard

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

By Michael Hurst, Natalie Medlock, and Dan Musgrove
Presented by Royale Productions
Basement Theatre, Auckland | June 4-15

Michael Hurst is pretty amazing.

That’s the main thing I came away from No Holds Bard with. The solo show, written by Hurst, Natalie Medlock, and Dan Musgrove, is a hilarious and impressive take on Shakespeare that makes fun of the Bard’s heroes as much as it embraces them and all their indulgences. It’s a hell of a fun time, but it hinges on Hurst’s performance, an impressive and compelling one that.

Hurst plays a variety of tragic Shakespearean heroes—Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello among some other minor characters—in an argument with each other. The premise of the show is Hamlet deciding whether to kill himself—the famous “to be or not to be”—while the other Shakespearean heroes weigh in on the case. It sounds like a serious thing, but the script is making fun of these characters and their flaws—Hamlet’s whininess, Macbeth’s height, Lear’s senility, and Othello’s lack of self-awareness—and Hurst is taking what the script gives him even further.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to get that Hurst was playing multiple characters, but once I got that I was totally along for the ride. Hurst has brilliant comic timing, some jokes which might’ve been juvenile or easy are turned into utter gold with his delivery and he distinguishes between each character with not only quicksilver changes, but each character has their own very distinct voice and physicality. Whether it’s Macbeth’s Scottish brogue or Lear’s harried, striking face; Hurst defines them immediately and the switches between them are as graceful and smooth as any I’ve seen on stage. Beyond that, there are a few scenes where Hurst has to stage a fight with himself that are jawdropping—I would have loved to be around to see him choreograph those!

The script largely relies on Hurst’s brilliance. It treads the line between being a bit too in-jokey. There were a few jokes that made me realise I’m not as well-versed in Shakespeare as I think I am, as well as some easier, well-trodden jokes, but the writing is witty enough to bypass both of these issues by being funny, quick, and witty enough to play up the differences between Shakespeare’s heroes and how they would probably come into conflict with each other. It’s hard to point out a highlight, but it’s probably the aforementioned fighting or Othello bouncing the female leads of other Shakespearan tragedies on his knee to predictable, hilarious results.

The best thing about this show, other than Hurst, is how accessible it is. My Shakespeare is limited to high school and a few skimmed readings since, but there was never a moment where I was left behind, and Hurst sets up the characters so well that we understand the jokes at their expense even if we’re not familiar with the original text. It’s something I’d recommend for any fan of Shakespeare, and even somebody who might not be so much of a fan. It’s fun to see these characters who are held up with such reverence being made fun of for an hour.

I’m excited to hear that this show is going to Edinburgh, where I’m sure it’ll play well. Hurst’s performance is one that stands up universally and the script is one that will travel and appeal to any audience, regardless of where they’re from. At any rate, I hope this season and the ones beyond it get the success they deserve. It’s a delightful show that is willing to make fun of the Shakespearean canon while admiring it simultaneously.