While there isn’t anything too startling about rap, hip-hop and pop sharing the same bill, throw Shakespeare into the mix and you have a situation where one of these things is really not like the others.
This doesn’t seem to concern Laura Murphy. Quite the opposite. The composer, lyricist and playwright has long been a fan of both Shakespeare and musicals, and for years has been working away on a new work, The Lovers, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
When it was suggested to Bell Shakespeare artistic director Peter Evans that he watch a Vimeo clip of Murphy’s The Lovers workshop he was initially sceptical.
“We’ve always been on the lookout for something like this but it’s very difficult to do and I’ve come across a lot of not great ones,” Evans tells Broadsheet.
He is happy to admit he was wrong.
“I immediately fell in love with it so we got hold of Laura and basically pitched to her that we should produce it. She writes very contemporary songs and the lyrics are amazing, the songs are amazing and it moves through all sorts of musical genres, from rap to hip-hop and pop.”
Directed by award-winning theatre and musical director Shaun Rennie (Rent at the Sydney Opera House), The Lovers will feature an ensemble of six performers and four musicians live on stage in a similar format to recent popular musical-theatre shows such as Once at Darlinghurst Theatre and Six the Musical, which is returning to the Sydney Opera House in December. A contemporary spin on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the show melds Shakespeare’s words with Murphy’s original songs.
“If you love the play you’ll really enjoy it, but if you’re not a Shakespeare person, it will work for you too. I think it will cross over quite easily. Laura is ferociously talented,” says Evans, referencing the 2019 musical The Dismissal, based around Gough Whitlam’s final days in office, for which Murphy wrote the music and lyrics. It debuted at the Seymour Centre in 2019 and unfortunately had its Sydney Theatre Company season cancelled due to lockdowns.
Evans is relishing the opportunity to talk about shows he hopes will actually happen in 2022, as opposed to the jigsaw of cancellations and rescheduling that came to define much of 2020 and 2021.
The company managed just two weeks of its 2020 season of Hamlet, starring Harriet Gordon-Anderson in the titular role and directed by Evans, before it was shut down, leaving glowing reviews in its wake. The cast was three weeks into rehearsals for a reprised production this year when it became clear another lockdown was imminent – so they are cautiously optimistic the glamorous, weighty production will recommence as part of Bell’s 2022 season in Sydney in March, before touring Canberra and Melbourne.
“I feel very excited to finally put it out there because it’s an astonishing play and a performance that’s pretty magic,” says Evans.
Another programmed work, Comedy of Errors, didn’t even see the light of day this year; Evans feels it has earnt its place in the 2022 program given its focus on fun, laughter and reunited families.
Keeping the company’s spirits up was the knowledge their first dedicated theatre space and custom-built home awaited them. In January 2022, Bell Shakespeare will relocate from The Rocks to the arts precinct in Walsh Bay, where they will take up residence in Pier 2/3 alongside the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Australian Theatre for Young People – one wharf along from the Sydney Theatre Company, Bangarra Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company, among others.
Bell Shakespeare’s new harbourside headquarters feature the Neilson Nutshell – an intimate theatre space named in honour of key patron Kerr Neilson – that will host lesser-known works and productions you wouldn’t expect to see in such an intimate setting. It’s in addition to rehearsal room the Seed, which doubles as an education space, and is key to the game-changing work Bell does in this area.
In April, the cast of Hamlet will christen the new space with In a Nutshell, a performance of the scenes and speeches from some of Shakespeare’s most cherished works, which led Evans to fall in love with the master playwright and poet.
“The basic spirit is a celebration of us being in a room together, the focus will be more on love and being as generous and joyous as possible,” says Evans. “It will be around 90 minutes long and have the feel of being invited into a rehearsal room.”
While all local performing arts companies are anxiously awaiting their return to the stage, Evans is cautiously optimistic.
“We’re making a lot of assumptions [about audiences], no one really knows. We’re all a bit trepidatious but all the signs are that people are really ready to get back to the theatre.”
Season packages for the 2022 season are now on sale. Single ticket sales begin rolling out from November 25, starting with Hamlet.