Frequently Asked Questions: To Be or Not to Be

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

02/03/2012 - 11/03/2012

Playhouse, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton

05/07/2012 - 07/07/2012

Theatre Royal, 78 Rutherford Street, Nelson

26/10/2012 - 27/10/2012

New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012

FUEL Festival 2012

Nelson Arts Festival 2012

Production Details


“Michael Hurst rises to the challenge with a performance that draws on the full range of his remarkable talent… ” The New Zealand Herald

Celebrated New Zealand actor Michael Hurst joins forces with two of New Zealand’s freshest young writers in an innovative new work, set in the Shakespearean afterlife. In Royale Productions’ Frequently Asked Questions: To Be or Not to Be, etc. an insomniac named Hamlet returns home to discover a script documenting the end of his life. He begins some serious late-night soul-searching: What a piece of work is a man? To be or not to be? These are his FAQs. And Hamlet can’t sleep until he knows.

In his debut solo work,Hurst melds his mastery of the Shakespearean form with an irreverent comic edge. One minute Hamlet is questioning his existence over a box of noodles; the next he is in conversation with himself, as Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear invade his room and relive their own death scenes in front of him. All this builds to an unforgettable battle sequence in which Hurst unleashed 30 years of stage combat experience… on himself.

Natalie Medlock and Dan Musgrove have been working with Hurstsince early 2010 to develop this semi-autobiographical work. The Toi Whakaari graduates have written six plays together, including Dan Is Dead / I Am a Yeti for the 2011 New Zealand International Comedy Festival.

Michael Hurst(ONZM) is a New Zealand Arts Laureate (2003) and has directed plays, films and television including Spartacus and Hercules. His recent productions include Red (Auckland Theatre Company, 2011) and Cabaret (direction and acting, Auckland Theatre Company, 2010).

The 2012 Downstage Solos includes Circle of Eleven’s Leo, Royale Productions’ Frequently Asked Questions and Taki Rua’s Michael James Manaia.

Frequently Asked Questions
Downstage Theatre
from 2 to 11 March
Tickets $43 – $48 available from Ticketek.
Downstage Members will receive Friends of the Festival discount for Frequently Asked Questions by booking at any Ticketek agency or box office using their Downstage Members’ Society card.


NOTE: For the Auckland Season the show is re-named
The Basement Theatre, May 21 – 26 2012 

Fuel Festival 2012

Playhouse Theatre, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts
5 – 7 July, 7.30pm
+ 6 July, 11am 

Nelson Arts Festival 2012

Theatre Royal, Nelson
26 – 27 October, 7.30pm


When shall these four meet again?

Review by Ruth Allison 28th Oct 2012

What’s the matter with Hamlet? Well, according to Macbeth he is ‘a big Danish poof’. This is the premise of the hilarious and often brilliant one man show Frequently Asked Questions.

Imagine Macbeth as the idiosyncratic Billy Connolly, Othello, as a misanthropic Lenny Henry, King Lear as a porphyria suffering Woody Allen and Hamlet as a self-doubting, stand-up comic Rowan Atkinson. 

This is Michael Hurst’s challenge; to represent these four central male Shakespearean protagonists in their own world as well as offering ‘advice’ to the beleaguered Hamlet. It all makes for an exhilarating 70 minutes which showcases the remarkable skills and talents of this actor.

A litany of Shakespearean questions begins this singularly stunning performance by Michael Hurst who appears on the stage in the best Elizabethan costume: billowing slops, velvet doublet and the exaggerated codpiece. His ‘Black Adder’ wig ripped off his head in a timely moment reveals Hurst’s Hamlet in the required state of ambivalence: “To be or not to be?”

To help him in this quest to find an answer he is visited in turn by the other characters and at some point all four characters are on the stage together. Remember, this is a one-man show. 

This is the stuff of FAQ.  Each of the four characters gets to perform one of their famous monologues. You do not have to be a Shakespeare buff to enjoy this show. It is redolent with the most common of Shakespeare’s lines and coined phrases. They are often contemporised and all punctuated by colloquial quips: “to die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream…” “Oh, I just knew you would say that,” interjects Macbeth peevishly. And I’ve always wanted to ask what a “fardel” is and so I am glad when Macbeth asks the question of Hamlet.

The climax of Hurst’s performance is the mind-boggling fight scene. A shambling brawl erupts over a perceived slight andHurstmanages with physical dexterity to convince us that he is being throttled and doing the throttling at the same time. He makes great use of the stage, moving with dexterity and as Macbeth he cooks himself a fried egg-and-cheese sandwich.

His Othello is brilliantly grotesque, juggling Desdemona, Juliet and Ophelia on his knee. His King Lear suitably bemused and blundering ‘I told him to stay at the pub’ grumbles Macbeth. But his Macbeth is outstandingly funny. “Tell him I’m not here,” he tells Hamlet when Othello wants to come in, “He’s really gullible.”

An audience of youthful students who have obviously studied Shakespeare gives this performance freshness and an enthusiasm which enhances the experience for the older and more sedate but nonetheless appreciative members. A spontaneous standing ovation is in order.

No wonder Hurst’s most frequently asked question is “How did you learn all those lines?” This is a performance not to be missed. It is an opportunity to see and hear New Zealand’s master Thespian at work. 

When shall we three (four) meet again?  I can’t wait to see more.


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Thrilling collision of characters

Review by Mark Houlahan 06th Jul 2012

Michael Hurst’s first solo show is terrific. The few remaining seats for the Hamilton shows should be snapped up. When it comes around, just go see it. It is the most entertaining and refreshing solo piece since the very first run of Jacob Rajan’s Krishnan’s Dairy in the 1990s. 

Hurst is a great theatre actor, but his propulsive energy can seem baffled and thwarted by mainstream roles. To my mind, the best of his performances over many years are those which climb to perverse extremes, such as his demonic emcee in the Watershed Theatre’s Cabaret, or his homicidal guilt ridden Bosola in the Auckland Theatre Company Duchess of Malfi.

The scriptwriters – Hurst, Daniel Musgrave and Natalie Medlock – have devised a cunning format that puts the complete Hurst on display for a single hilarious hour. 

The set is a circle of carpet, furnished as a bed-sit with a cosy arm chair and a dodgy looking hot plate. In stumbles a distracted Shakespeare actor. He wears black trunk hose and a frightful black pudding-bowl wig; the kind of garb that gives Shakespeare acting a bad name. There’s a small pistol in the room as well. The desperate actor raises the gun to the side of his head. And we’re off. 

The set-up is a version of the actor’s nightmare, not itself that original. What lifts this is the device used: four Shakespeare characters come to the rescue. They take over Hurst’s body as he becomes Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. They live both in their plays (they know how they must end), but outside as well. They visit just like ghosts do in Shakespeare’s plays. 

But they are much funnier. They joke with each other, and with the actor. They fight with great force. Hurst is famous for his fight choreography; the fights he stages with himself, complete with back flips and chair rolls, drew gasps from the audience. They are genius, and reminded me that an early Hurst triumph was as the madman in Theatre Corporate’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. 

The characters quote Shakespeare incessantly. They can’t get him out of their heads. It’s an hour long tribute to the force Shakespeare still exercises over us. By some mystery, his characters still live. The energy they tap into is thrilling to watch. Would that all orthodox remounts of Shakespeare had this exhilaration. 

Of the four, plus the sad actor, Hurst’s Macbeth is outstanding. He speaks in thick Scottish. He swears freely and is almost camp, like a kind of blank verse-declaiming Billy Connolly. He eats greedily, and completely owns the stage. He has a demonic energy which is distinctively Hurst’s own, and is far more interesting than the very serious Macbeth Hurst performed and directed several years ago. 

I am told the producer is not happy with the current title, which is admittedly not very snappy. Here are some thoughts. To Be: Or Not. Hamlet & other animals. Michael Hurst’s all-acting, all eating, fighting and cussing stage show. 

[The show was actually renamed Bard Day’s Night for the Auckland season which followed its NZ International Arts Festival debut in Wellington, but the Fuel Festival programme had already gone to press – ED.] 


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More matter amid this artifice

Review by John Smythe 04th Mar 2012

To say this is too long would be to court derision as one who would prefer a jig or a tale of bawdry. To say its attraction is limited to those with a good working knowledge of Shakespeare may be to state the bleeding obvious.  

Besides, how many thousands have engaged with the Bard through Shakespeare Globe Centre NewZealand’s Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festivals and played once or more in the university Summer Shakespeare productions, let alone seen the odd fully professional production that emerges on stage or screen?

All that’s required is a basic awareness of the core themes in Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, many quotations from which now permeate the realms of common speech. But is this Hamlet’s dilemma as universal as, say, that of the title roles in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead?  

This prince – as written by Michael Hurst, Natalie Medlock (also director) and Dan Musgrove (associate director), and performed by Hurst – is a doublet-and-hose of inky black-clad Hamlet, with a shiny wig of identical hue. He apparently lives amid 1950s furniture (or is it late 1940s, congruent with Olivier’s seminal film, given the similar costume?). And he cannot sleep. Or perhaps he does and thus he dreams …

At first he is haunted by all the questions he asks in Shakespeare’s play (hence the title of this one). Then he reveals a fear of harking in the dark. Then comes the crucial question: “Why am I wearing tights?” Such is his moody introspection, the intrusion of an altogether more earthy and pragmatic Macbeth is welcome, even if he is a compulsive hacker (and we are not talking cyber-crime here).

Othello and King Lear turn up as well and their tragical demeanours add to the comical ninety minutes. I am tempted to think this is Hurst, haunted by the ghosts of those he has played, played the fool to, supported or directed. But here is meat more chewable than that.

Hamlet juxtaposed with Macbeth compares and contrasts what a piece of work a man can be, and Othello and Lear add to that theme. Othello’s role is to expose their various attitudes to women. Lear leads their collective enquiry into madness. Where does true strength, not to mention power, lie? What is this quintessence of dust? All is wrought through existential angst.

And meet it is it should be so; something more than watching an excellent actor at work. And so Hurst is, an excellent actor, but to a purpose greater than a mere display of talent.

Beyond the metaphysical swirls the physical highlight is the fight he manifests between Hamlet and Macbeth. That it is not staged to elicit applause (although we want to applaud) confirms there is more to the purpose.

But where to from there? Aye there’s the rub … How to put an end on it? Having fretted and strutted his hour-and-a-half upon the stage …

An hour would be enough, I feel, with some rigorous objective-driven tightening. But then we are talking about a procrastinator here, one that even takes his time a-dying (not that he knows yet that is to come, until he reads the script of his life). And this much I can certainly say: it contains more matter within its artifice than The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane – and that, to answer one of Hamlet’s frequently asked questions, is very much the matter.   


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