The Sydney Shakespeare Festival is in its seventh year, but it has a new venue, in the old Fitzroy Theatre, and a new director in Richard Hilliar. For his first year in charge, the avid young Shakespeare lover was determined to put his mark on the festival, and he started with his bold choice of repertoire. This season, the company will perform two works, King Lear and Measure For Measure. The two plays are superficially quite unalike. One is a tragedy, one is more comedic in tone; one tells the story of a father’s betrayal at the hands of his daughters, the other is a bawdy tale of vice and immoral behaviour. Hilliar, however, says that the two are more similar than you might realise.
“Measure For Measure has a lot of comedy in it, but it’s described as a problem play,” he says. “It ends happily, but morally, there’s a question as to whether the ending is really happy. People go unpunished for their crimes, and there are a lot of unresolved questions.” Lear, on the other hand, is a more straightforward tragedy about an old king’s decline and eventual ruin, but Hilliar says that a deeper look into the stories reveals similar themes and ideas. “They both explore the idea of hypocrisy and the abuse of power,” he says, “and they both portray schisms in relationships, both personal and political. They’re both about family, as well. They explore a lot of the same territory, but in vastly different ways.”
Hilliar chose a period setting for Lear, and a contemporary one for Measure, and I’m curious to ask how he arrived at this decision. “When you’re choosing the setting for a play, you have to try and think of a place that best highlights the themes,” he explains. “With Lear, we wanted to look at the old traditional values of honour, and the destruction of the old ways by the new, so we decided to set it in the 1940s, just after World War II, as a period piece. Measure For Measure is about a vice-ridden city and a deputy trying to clean it up, and I thought that Kings Cross was actually a very good modern example of that. It’s not set in Kings Cross, but it’s set in a very similar place.”
The festival features a total cast of 12, who will be performing in both plays. It seems like quite an acting challenge, but Hilliar tells me they are more than up to the task. “I used to act in the Shakespeare Festival myself,” he says, “and it’s a lot of fun playing multiple roles, because it gives you more scope to explore and try different things as an actor, and it lets you stretch yourself and try a lot of different things.” Being director, of course, comes with its own set of challenges. “The big thing for me is making sure that the ideas I have for both plays are coming through clearly,” he says. “Maintaining clarity of vision is hard with two plays on the go, but I’m lucky in that the cast is tremendous, so the rehearsal process has been easy.”
Thinking back on his time acting in the festival, I ask Hilliar about his favourite Shakespeare roles. “If I had to pick two, I’d sayHamlet, and Mercucio from Romeo & Juliet,” he says. “There’s so much to explore in Hamlet, and his monologues are beautifully well-written,” he says. “Then there’s Mercucio, who’s just a lot of fun. He’s very bawdy, and always talking about sex and genitals and things like that. If you just go for it and play the bawdiness of the character, it’s an incredibly fun role, and always really popular with an audience.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN