The Post-Haste Histories, improvised from William Shakespeare | Directed by Oliver Burton

The Post-Haste Players | Kings Cross Theatre (http://www.kingsxtheatre.com), Sydney | Until 20 August

“And let those that play your clowns speak no more than set down for them …”

Well, this bunch of seasoned improvisers have decided to throw Hamlet’s caution to the players out the window!

They’ve set themselves a massive challenge: to improvise an entire Shakespearean tragic historical comedy – in iambic pentameter yet! Well, maybe not iambic pentameter (the rhythm of speech for Shakespeare’s more elevated characters) proper, but they certainly give it a good try and sound freakishly Shakespearean.

Improvisation tends to be of the Theatre Sports variety – short scenes based around a word or concept or game, usually with audience input, of definite duration, in competition. The stakes are high, as is the potential for embarrassment. But if one scene flops or wanders aimlessly, that’s fine. As a performer you know that neither you nor the audience have too long to endure before launching into the next completely different scenario.

Get in hard; get out quick.

So I was in awe of these players who seek to improvise a play-length improvisation, rooted in the Shakespearean tradition.

In the tradition of audience participation, we were each asked in the ‘foyer’ to select a word from one of two ancient-looking dictionaries, write the word and its definition on a card, and put it in a similarly ancient box.

A word chosen at random from this box (in theatrical pomp and ceremony, by The Guest, as it happened) was to be the crux of the show. SPINSTER.

They were off. What followed was a tumultuous and at times meandering journey back to Elizabethan England and into the world of a writer’s imagination.

Let me explain.

The show had only the barest pre-defined skeleton. The framing device is an Elizabethan hotel. Apt, really, as the theatre space, such as it is, is on the first floor of Kings Cross Hotel. What a gorgeous old hotel! It perfectly set the scene before we’d even set eyes on the costumed players.

This Elizabethan ‘Cheers’ is an earlier version of the TV bar. It’s a place where a group of characters can meet, share their stories and connect. On this particular night in 1592 it’s freezing cold and these characters have a great deal of connecting to do.

It’s fascinating to watch the cast feeling their way around the chosen word and each other, spawning the beginning of relationships that are sometimes picked up by the other actors, sometimes not, and sometimes morphed into something else entirely. At one point there is talk of going to see the spinning woman – the spinster – just outside of the village, to weave her magic to right some invented wrong. Next, the only female cast member appears and we assume she is the spinning woman but turns out to be another spinster entirely – Queen Elizabeth. The plan to visit the spinning woman is forgotten as though it was never made, and the actors fervently pick up this new idea.

Among the hotel patrons is a writer. The director, Oliver Burton, writes in his program notes:

“That much is set because at some point we leave the tavern and enter his head to watch the spontaneous creation of a new history play, inspired by the lives of these ordinary people recast as nation-shaping (and shaking) decision makers.”

The history play begins and I’m enthralled watching the actors in freefall, knowing they have no idea how each sentence they utter will finish until it is spoken. They, too, watch each other closely because that helps them to ride the same wavelength … most of the time.

Again, in his notes, Burton explains the difference between conventional theatre and improvisation. The talent of the ‘conventional’ theatre actor is in making the lines they have rehearsed over and over seem spontaneous, whereas in improvisation “[we] genuinely think every thought for the first time in the moment just before [we] speak it”.

These talented actors have had much training and experience in both improvisation and conventional theatre, and The Guest and I recognise many of them: Anne Wilson, Dan Cordeaux (of Thank God You’re Here), Ewan Campbell, Marko Mustac and Oliver Burton himself.

But it’s not just the cast who create the show every night. The lighting, sound and music crew are as much a part of the process as the actors. Bryce Halliday was excellent in following the story unfolding for the first time in front of his eyes, and scoring it appropriately on the spot. He also led occasionally with sound effects thrown in that the actors latched onto to take the scene in a new direction. Lighting was the same, following the action as required and warming or cooling according to the emotions that developed.

Yes, as with all impro, there was some rambling, some misdirection and some bloopers, but it was a fun night with actors and audience (and crew) going along with the spirit of fun and adventure. It was a good ride.

All images: Stephen Reinhardt