It’s been a brum week overall. My close friends Ken Branagh and Emma Thompson broke up, and so did their star-crossed equivalents Kym Wilson and Jeremy Sims (my erstwhile Palm Beach neighbours), mere days before their triumphant opening night of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
I went to this in the company of the Premier who explained the jokes to me. Derived from the intermittent entrances in Hamlet of Shakespeare’s nervous understudies for Abbott and Costello – or Downer and Costello perhaps – its theme, the Premier patiently explained, is that you barely have time to discover which gig you are in and which role you should be playing before you are in your grave. Peter Collins, for instance, on weekends believes he is an admiral, the Premier said, and Phillip Adams that he is both the father of his country and an ancient Egyptian corpse. Reality is eluding both of them and neither of them is young.
How true this is, I thought that night as I packed my bags and flew south to serve Kim Beazley and my country by composing coarse descriptions of John Howard. (Yesterday’s feather duster. Like a dead match on a window sill, dreaming it once was fire.) I mean, I wanted to be a Seventh Day Adventist parson once. And a fighter pilot in the coming World War against the Commies. And David McNicoll’s son-in-law. And the next Orson Welles. Lord, Lord, we know who we are, as the late Ophelia of Denmark noted before she topped herself, but we know not what we may be.
Of course, this is all that Shakespeare is ever up to and it was shrewd of Stoppard to have picked it up. We are assigned a role to which we are unsuited, and we fearfully attempt to play it and come unstuck. Brutus, the philosopher, is a poor demagogue and generalissimo. Hamlet, the anarchic student, a poor assassin and palace revolutionary. Coriolanus, the good army general, a poor grassroots politician. Viola, a girl, a poor boy. Bottom, an adequate knockabout busker, a poor consort to the Queen of the Fairies. And so on. O.J. Simpson, a charismatic and stirring grid-iron player but an ill-tempered cuckold. John Howard, I suppose, an adequate suburban solicitor but a poor national saviour.
Give us this day our daily mask, as Jeremy as Guildenstern said on the night that established him as the next Bell or Branagh. Or even Welles perhaps, the irreverent young pup.
Or the next Jonathan Hardy.
Hardy dominated the show of course, as the actor-manager of the players who do The Murder of Gonzago so tellingly at Hamlet’s request before being cast out unpaid and slung into the castle cesspool. Gilbraltar-still and wearily sonorous, self-regretful and self-mocking, he seemed a thousand years old, a wandering Jew of the acting profession who has seen it all and found no human perversion, in spotlight or darkness, tavern yard or palace ballroom, that any longer surprises him. His mesmerising pallid stillness and lordly ursine corpulence (the product not of self-indulgence but of his second, more dodgy heart transplant) and the smallest trickle of real blood from his high and haughty nose gave an eerie monumentality to his presence that put one in mind of Ralph Richardson in his formidable age or Frank Thring on his fourteenth rough riesling, and made one feel privileged, that opening night, to be his witness.
Or made me feel that, anyway. Hardy is that Australian commonplace, an undercelebrated great man. Teacher, director, singer, screenwriter (and Oscar nominee for Breaker Morant) playwright, mime, enthuser (and for his first burl at Shakespeare, Jeremy’s voice coach), aficionado of Duende and brilliant conversationalist, he has come with genius out of so many manholes, tap dancing and waving a straw hat, that he is barely known at all. And attention, serious attention should be paid to such a man. This week, on stage in his artistic prime, and serene as the world’s last autumn, and impressive as Big Ben, important and radiant, he can be seen.
Observe him if you can, oh ye of little resonance, and learn from him, and from Jeremy, while you’re up, and his amazing team.
And go out more often, all of you. History is happening all around you, you bastards, and you are looking away.