Oliver Burton on Beating the Bard at his Own Game

In 2011, Oliver Burton undertook the ambitious task of building an improvised show in which the actors speak only in Shakespearean-style language. Five years on, the idea remains as fresh as ever, and the Post-Haste Players are now entertaining Sydney audiences with their take on Shakespeare’s History plays. I asked Burton about taking on the great Bard…

You founded the Post Haste Players in 2011 – what prompted you to create an improvised Shakespeare company?

In theatresports, which your readers might know from (TV show) Who’s Line is it Anyway? and the Cranston Cup, you see what we call short-form improvisation. There is a game in theatresports that you play which is in the style of Shakespeare. It tends to be a bit of a piss-take! It’s uproariously funny, but I kind of looked at that and wondered what would happen if we did a whole show that way.

There was an impro festival that was being put together at the Roxbury Hotel in 2011 and I got together with a bunch of fantastic impro artists, and proposed we do a long-form Shakespearean improvisation. And they all jumped on board and it worked really well!

How do you make something like this work?

My theory was, let’s really try and learn the language, learn the grammar. It’s like any other language – if you learn the grammar and the vocabulary you can speak it. And with Shakespeare, 80-90% of it is what we speak anyway.

We have a fairly set training regime, which we started with when we created Bard to the Bone (the Post Haste Players’ first show) and then extrapolated to the Histories, where we warm up using word associations and rhyme associations to get the brain firing. Then we do some translations – taking a modern English line and translating that into Shakespearean English. We use things like a game called Freeze Tag, where two actors play a scene, and a third actor yells ‘Freeze’ and takes over the position of one of the actors and then begins again with a completely new scene. In fact, we use lot of the old theatresports and drama games because they are wonderful tools. It’s really about tuning your ear, playing with the Shakespearean language as much as possible, so you can deliver as authentic a performance as possible.

PHH Oliver Burton 2This show is different from Bard to the Bone in that it’s not intended as a comedy. Tell me a bit about the thinking behind that.

I guess I would say it’s more that it’s intended not just as a comedy. The default position for improvisation, as most people understand it, is as a comedy. That, or it lives only in rehearsal rooms. A lot of directors will use it as a tool and then build scenes around that.

We approach it with the theory of empowering the actor to play according to how their character feels in that moment and how they understand the audience is feeling. The actors have the full range of their skills at their disposal at any given moment, which can bring out both comedy and tragedy.

It must be hard to do that when your actors are literally creating their characters on the spot – you don’t have the weeks of rehearsal that actors typically do where they can become so in-tune with the character – is it proving more challenging than you perhaps thought to not resort to comedy?

That’s a really good observation. It is proving slightly more challenging than I expected. We are essentially guided by the audience and we have to trust that they’re enjoying it. It’s hard to do that when they (the audience) are not vocal. In comedy you get the laughs, you get that electric feeling when you’ve done something good, and it’s hard not to chase that. So yes, it does take some discipline to be able to play a funny scene, and then say, “Okay, let’s take it to a more serious place now.” The company are really conscious of that.

Obviously some nights go more one way than the other. I think the key is that it has to be about the relationship – what the characters mean to each other. The scenes that have that at their core are going to be real.

I’m not giving anything away to the readers by saying you start the show playing William Shakespeare. So I’d like to do a little ‘Character Assassination’ with you…

Firstly, can you describe your character in three words:

I would say this Will is cocky, witty and introspective.

What is your favourite line to deliver as your character and why?

It’s not so much a line that I deliver in this show, but I always warm-up with Claudius’ opening speech from Hamlet. The reason is that it’s a piece with so many contrasts – “With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole” – it warms-up your brain as well as your voice and body.

If ice cream existed in Elizabethan times, what would have been Will’s favourite flavour?

Salted caramel. It’s rich and salty sweet – it’s got a complex palate. Like his work, it’s all about the contrast.

If you could give your character one piece of advice, what would it be?

Oh the arrogance of giving one piece of advice to Shakespeare! (Laughs) Don’t die! I want to meet you!

Finally, if you saw your character in real life, would you kiss them, kill them or cross the street?

I’d smooch him so hard! I’d fall on my knees and thank him. My hero worship would be disgusting!


Oliver Burton and the Post-Haste Players can be seen in Post-Haste Histories at the Kings Cross Theatre in Sydney until 20 August. More information can be found here.


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