When Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin first met, they were teenage outsiders discovering art in their hometown of Perth. Schmitz remembers the whole thing through the lens of his 15-year-old self. “Tim was the most funny and erudite chap in a certain youth theatre set,” he says “and he was very gracious in extending a hand and going, ‘hey pimply angry guy, you can come and sit with us.’”
Minchin, on the other hand, remembers himself as the clique crasher. “My sister was [Toby’s] mate, although she found [him] utterly aggravating, and I started hanging out with them,” he says. “It was a little bit sad because they were a couple of years younger than me but they were being sardonic at every turn and talking about art all the time…so I was just crashing a party that looked fun.”
As well as an instant artistic and comedic connection, both were happy to admit there was also a practical reason for their friendship. “We lived nearby and [Toby] didn’t have a car and I drove incredibly,” says Minchin. “What could possibly go wrong in a Volvo,” adds Schmitz.
If you ignored the pair’s decade of hard work and only looked at the last five years of their careers, you’d think nothing had gone wrong. Schmitz has become one of the most well-known faces of Australia’s theatre scene – he’s delivering performance after memorable performance from Shakespeare to new Australian plays and has practically been the face of Belvoir St Theatre’s seasons for the last few years. He also won the Patrick White Playwright’s Award in 2002 for your information.
Meanwhile, Minchin has leveraged his successful comedy career into a platform for all manner of talents, from composing (his score for the hit musical Matilda has earned him acclaim and awards, not least of all a Tony nomination) to musical theatre (you couldn’t miss the ads for the recent arena spectacular version of Jesus Christ Superstar in which he played Judas) and even Hollywood acting with a stint on Showtime’s sexed up success Californication as rock star Atticus Fetch.
And come August, Schmitz and Minchin are rekindling their teenage friendship in Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was one of my ‘if I ever got to do it, it would be a dream’,” says Schmitz. “In my eyes, it’s the best post-war play and I really had relegated it to the ‘don’t wish too hard on that so you don’t feel despair when you don’t get it.’ Then a friend of ours, Luke Cowling tapped us on the shoulder and said ‘that play, right now, the two of you can make it happen, wake up!’ So we pitched the thing.”
With a play and two leads of such renown, they didn’t have to pitch far. The classic existentialist comedy takes place in the wings of Hamlet and places two otherwise minor characters centre stage. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are friends of Hamlet’s but when they don’t have lines and they’re confused as to their place in the world. With shades of Beckett’s theatre classic Waiting For Godot (also playing at the Sydney Theatre Company later this year), the pair await instructions, context or just some sustained action to see them through. For all its existential introspection, it’s also an incredible comedy that matches a slapstick fall with every metaphysical punch.
Unlike Belvoir’s upcoming production of Hamlet (also starring Schmitz in the eponymous role), which we can only assume will be treated with Simon Stone’s now renowned sexy-spare staging, this production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern will be treated more ‘traditionally.’ “Unlike Hamlet where 400 years have passed and we have to look at through a different lens, there’s only a clutch of decades that have passed since this one and very helpfully in the first stage direction Stoppard refers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as being two Elizabethans,” says Schmitz.
Schmitz also tell us about the temptation to modernise the text. “Tim and I had a discussion – maybe we hadn’t looked at the text closely in awhile – about what kind of production of Hamlet we are peering into from the wings. I pitched the idea of Geoffrey Rush, ‘maybe it’s a rock ‘n’ roll Hamlet with an iPod and jeans,’ and he said ‘look at the first stage direction. It’s go the word Elizabethans in it.’” And after all that there was no need to add anything anyway. “Our director Simon [Phillips] said, ‘why would you add anything meta on top of the greatest postmodern, meta play ever written?’”
It’s almost surprising that Minchin is using his new found success to throw himself in the deep end, placing himself at the centre of projects that demand a lot and there’s definitely a terror that comes along with it. “I’ve looked very hard into the art of timing and spending time on stage but I’m also without a doubt the junior member of this cast,” he says. “I do things that cause me great anxiety all the time, but I’m equipped to deal with anxiety…stress is like alcohol – I’ve got the liver to break it down.” And as for Schmitz, he can’t imagine approaching things any other way. “If you want to be an actor why not give yourself a great play.” Undoubtedly, this is what these teenage friends have done.
BY SIMON BINNS
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead opens at Sydney Theatre Company on August 6 and runs until September 14.