12 August 2015

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This week in drama* on the waterfront, we learn more about writer, doctor and spiritualist, and author of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

An Old Norfolk Saying... "And a dreadful thing from the cliff did spring, And its wild bark thrill'd around, His eyes had the glow of the fires below, Twas the form of the Spectre Hound"
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Author Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 60 mystery stories with Sherlock Holmes and his loyal assistant Watson. He dreamed of being a serious historical novelist, yet he is best remembered for stories that he considered pot-boilers. He drew on many sources for his stories, and it was during a visit to Sheringham, Norfolk that he learned of the hound, Black Shuck, who is said to be one of the oldest phantoms of Great Britain which inspired him to write The Hound of the Baskervilles. There are many myths, tales, legends and sightings of this monster. Local legend tells of a huge hound, the size of a small calf with blazing eyes, who regularly prowls the coastal path between Sheringham and Overstrand.

The beast is said to track the steps of its victim and anyone unfortunate enough to turn around and meet its fiery gaze is said to die within a twelve month period. The Baskerville name was apparently from a local coach driver, Henry Baskerville, whom Doyle came across during his visit. The old man kept a signed copy of the book's original pressing as a sort of recompense.
Conan Doyle was born in Scotland. When he was nine years old he was sent off to England to a Jesuit Boarding school. It was here he found his flair for storytelling as a way of escape from bullying.

When he left school he decided to pursue a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. At medical school, he met his mentor, Professor Dr. Joseph Bell, whose keen powers of observation would later inspire him to create his famed, legendary master sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s first publication came in 1879 with The Mystery of Sasassa Valley.  At the same time as writing, he  pursued his studies and went on to become a physician at Southsea, Portsmouth. He eventually gave up medicine to concentrate on his writing career. In a series of stories - starting with A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four - he produced the memorable character, Sherlock Holmes, a detective who relied on facts and evidence rather than chance. In 1891, six Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were published in Strand magazine, with six more appearing the next year. By 1893, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, as the collected stories were now called, was a huge hit. Doyle however, wanted to concentrate on a more serious writing career and as he was somewhat tired of Sherlock Holmes he decided to kill him off.  As a result he wrote The Adventure of the Final Problem, in which Holmes and his arch enemy, Moriarty find themselves at the end of an intense pursuit, up on the top of the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps. This encounter ends with both of them apparently falling to their deaths.
Homes and Moriarty firghting at the Reichenbach Falls.  Illustration by Sidney Paget.
However, due to public outrage and financial pressures he was compelled to continue writing the Sherlock Holmes stories. The first to follow on from The Adventure of the Final Problem was The Hound of the Baskervilles, which remains today one of the most famous and popular of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
William Kircher as Sherlock Holmes in the current Circa production of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Photo by Stephen A'Court

Around the time he obtained his medical degree, Conan Doyle’s renounced his Catholicism and turned away from organised religion.  He began to attend séances and by the end of his life he had become an ardent spiritualist.

On one level, his was the story of a lapsed Roman Catholic troubled by an alcoholic father and never quite able to cast off his sense of the supernatural; on another it was the intellectual journey of an inquisitive man, dissatisfied with Victorian materialism but intent on using its tools to examine alternative forms of consciousness. His brother died in WW1 and his son died of ‘flu during the great epidemic round the same time, thus adding to the fervor of his convictions. This was also a time when orthodox religion was giving way to Darwin and science.
Conan Doyle died in Windlesham, his home in Crowborough, Sussex, and at his funeral his family and members of the spiritualist community celebrated rather than mourned the occasion. On July 13 1930, thousands of people filled London’s Royal Albert Hall for a séance during which Estelle Roberts, the spiritualist medium, claimed to have contacted Sir Arthur.

In 1902, Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted by King Edward VII. It was not for having created Sherlock Holmes, but for his writing a non-fiction work about the Boer War. However, his legacy remains with the amazing Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is on at Circa Theatre until 29 August.  Book online at www.circa.co.nz or by phone on 04 801 7992.

11 August 2015

Julie OBrien Improvises

Ask Julie O’Brien if she thought she’d ever perform in a totally non-scripted, unrehearsed show where the audience dictates the storyline and the answer would be a definite "never".

Most recently seen as Donna in Wellington Musical Theatre’s 2014 production of Mamma Mia, Julie’s career spans over thirty years. She is totally at home on the stage, but improvisation is a very different experience.

"Improv has definitely taken me out of my comfort zone", she says, "I’ve always worked with a script and a director and had weeks of rehearsal, but I’m absolutely loving this new challenge."
Julie stars as Donna in Mamma Mia.  Photo by Russell Dixon.
Born and bred in Wellington, O’Brien has worked in New York, Britain, New Zealand and Australia appearing in shows as diverse as Chess, Evita, The New Rocky Horror Show, Grease, Hairspray, Anything Goes, The Pirates of Penzance and Oliver. Julie was an original Australian cast member of ‘The Witches of Eastwick’, and received personal praise from Cameron Mackintosh when she played several performances in the role of Felicia, for which she was first understudy.

Before returning to NZ in 2005, Julie played the role of Rosie Greenwich in Leader Of The Pack, at Crown Casino, Melbourne.

In 2006, she took up the position of Course Coordinator of Musical Theatre for the Two Year Diploma course at The Wellington Performing Arts Centre (now Whitireia Performance Centre).

In Wellington, Julie has played the roles of Little Becky Two Shoes in the Downstage production of Urinetown, Mari Hoff in Stagecraft Theatre’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, and Velma von Tussle in Hairspray for Wellington Musical Theatre.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.  Photo by Jared Pallesen.
In 2012, she became a member of The Improvisors when they were contracted to undertake two of the largest training programmes ever to be run in New Zealand. "We rolled out the re-branding of Z energy to all employees in every Shell Service station throughout the country."  A year later, due to the overwhelming success of the Z Energy project, The Improvisors were asked to develop an HR programme for The Warehouse. ‘Love Your Customer' was a half-day programme for 15 – 20 participants hosted by a team of three Improvisors. It was run nationwide in 18 centres delivering to 5000 team members over ten weeks.  "It was very intense but a great experience", she says.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that O’Brien finally plucked up the courage to do Theatresports. "It’s a challenge and you definitely have to have your wits about you. The audience is primarily in charge of what we perform. We don’t know what the audience is going to throw at us, so it certainly keeps us on our toes."

Downton Aldib is different again from the format of Theatresports. Described as long form, a new episode is created at every performance. And with one show down and eight more to go, O’Brien is looking forward to seeing how it develops. "Each night, we supply the characters, the audience supplies the key plot ingredients and the result is costume drama as you’ve never seen it before and will never see again," she says. "The feedback from Sunday night’s audience was amazing. They were really engaged and after the show, people were already talking about coming back."
Julie O'Brien stars in DOWNTON AdLib, on now at Circa Theatre.

DOWNTON AdLib is on now at Circa Theatre, every Sunday night at 7pm until 27 September.  Book online at www.circa.co.nz or by phone 04 801-7992.

23 July 2015

Bizarre and Brilliant

The Young and Hungry Arts Trust Ambassadors are a group of keen bean Year 12 & 13 students, who attend shows at Circa and others theatres throughout the year and write reviews.  They joined us at The Ugly One on Tuesday night.  Here is a review from Eva Poland.

Reviewed by Eva Poland, Chilton St James School.

Simultaneously one of the most bizarre and one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen, Circa’s production of The Ugly One is deeply haunting from its slow start to sudden dramatic finish.

The play tells the story of Lette, a plug-inventor at a large corporation who is denied the right to present his product at a convention after being told that he is incredibly ugly. When this is confirmed by his wife and friends, Lette eventually becomes so disturbed that he opts to have a total face re-shaping from a plastic surgeon. This causes a radical change in Lette’s life; suddenly he is loved by everyone and paid a much higher amount of money than he was before.

Throughout the production four actors are used to play seven key characters, with the actors never leaving stage and no transitions between scenes. This can be rather confusing at first but not to the detriment of the storyline, the actors handle the task smoothly and all of them are equally accomplished in playing their roles.

By far one of the most effective aspects of the show was the script, which is sharp, honest and almost unbearably clever. Thankfully the director has been kind enough to not overcrowd it with complicated action or scene changes, and the humour of the writing shines through. If anything, the unusual structure of the play adds to the effect of isolating the audience and making them question the morals of our society and whether or not the amount of importance we place upon beauty can be justified.

The set was another factor that contributed to the frank, unfiltered genius of The Ugly Ones. A stark, simple, grey and familiar looking “office”-type setup was plausible when it doubled as a house, an hotel, a convention stage and even a rooftop. Lighting and sound were minimal, drawing the focus toward the acting and storyline.

Overall The Ugly One is a funny and thought-provoking play, both brilliantly performed and directed. The most poignant and most terrifying scene is perhaps the last, a scene that more than any other encouraged the audience to think about not only our love for beauty, but our love for ourselves. The last moment of the play sees the audience witness a passionate kiss, preceded by Lette meeting an old friend of his who was so taken by Lette’s new face that he decided to have it recreated on his own head. “It’s me,” Lette gasps, “I’ve finally found you… me.”

The Ugly One is on at Circa until 8 August.

BOOK NOW at Circa Theatre  801-7992 / www.circa.co.nz

20 July 2015

From Hobbit to Holmes

Following his lead cast role as Bifur the Dwarf in The Hobbit trilogy of movies, William Kircher returns to the stage after a 20 year absence with The Hound of the Baskervilles.  This week in drama* on the waterfront, William talks to Colleen McColl about Bifur, Sir Peter Jackson, the joy of being back on stage.
William Kircher as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Photo by Stephen A'Court.
Q:  You have recently been seen in The Hobbit movie trilogy playing Bifur the Dwarf which must have been very rewarding. How did you prepare for the role? And what were the highlights and challenges of working with Sir Peter Jackson? 

A:  Pretty much as soon as I signed off on the contract, which was around six months before we began principal photography, the production arranged a top personal trainer at one of the most prestigious gyms in Wellington.  I trained very hard!  Then for ten weeks the main cast came together for a 'boot camp'.  We trained everyday in a diverse range of skills including body movement, dialogue, weaponry, horse riding, stunt fighting, dialogue, improvisation, teamwork... it was a very intense and rewarding experience. Almost like going back to Drama School! Peter Jackson is a fantastic "Actors' Director". He is a creative genius, who has a definite vision for his art, and yet remains open to suggestions and ideas from his actors. He is very respectful of the actors craft and it was an incredible honour to be chosen to be part of a team that worked with one of the greatest film directors in the world for over three years! 
William as Bifur in The Hobbit.
Q:  Has appearing in these movies impacted on your career? 

A:  Being in the films has opened doors all over the world for me. It has enabled me to take my acting career to an international level.

Q:  Twenty years ago you were in Brilliant Lies also directed by Ross Jolly. It must be interesting to be back working with someone after all this time? 

A:  Ross has always been one of my favourite Directors and it is very fitting that my first project back on stage after all this time is with Ross at the helm. He has put together an amazing cast and I am loving every single second of the rehearsal period. It is like a family reunion for me. It is so great to be back working at Circa!

William on stage on Brilliant Lies.
Q:  This is the first time in twenty years you have appeared on stage. Apart from The Hobbit movies, what have you been up to?

A:  I have always stayed in the creative industries, but in the late 90s I concentrated more on television and film acting. Then I moved away from acting for several years and worked in the corporate side of the screen business. I worked as a Producer with Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment. In the meantime I also worked with Nicole, my wife, at her talent agency Possum Talent. I wrote and directed some theatre, plus many comedy dinner shows, and I developed my singing career with our 60s vocal group The California Dreamers. We also were hard at work bringing up our family!
William and his wife Nicole at the World Premiere of The Hobbit at the Odeon Theatre in London.

Q:  Had you read Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories before you began working on this production and in particular The Hound of the Baskervilles

A:  Yes... read quite a bit of Conan Doyle when I was a younger and The Hound of the Baskervilles was always a major favourite!

Q:  It would be hard to ignore all the influences from actors playing Sherlock Holmes. Is there an actor you have seen in the role of Sherlock that you have admired and has it influenced your interpretation in any way?

A:  No actor in particular has influenced me.... in fact you can say that ALL the actors I have seen playing this role have influenced me.

Q:  This is a very different way of playing this story with four actors playing all the many roles. Has that brought challenges for you?

A:  The style of this show is wonderfully theatrical... and yes, all the actors play diverse roles. I love this, as it takes a great deal of craft and skill to bring these roles to life. Many years ago I was in a major hit show titled Bouncers that utilised exactly the same technique. Bouncers was a massive hit at all around the country and this culminated with a sell-out season at Circa that then shifted to the Opera House! So this style is not new to me... it is true 'Theatre' and I am thoroughly enjoying the challenge of working in this way once more.

Q:  Last year was very busy and successful for you. What were some of the highlights? 

A:  Throughout the year I got to work all around the world in Germany, Sweden, London, America and Australia.... then in December I was in Hollywood walking the Red Carpet at the Dolby Theatre for the premiere of the final Hobbit film. What a fantastic adventure... and I count myself very, very fortunate!

Q:  What is the favourite role you have ever played and why? 

A:  Well, of course, apart from playing Bifur in The Hobbit trilogy... I have to say Sherlock Holmes. Because as an actor, you are only as good as your next role!

Q:  And one that is an ambition to play? 

Sherlock Holmes! And maybe the villain in a James Bond movie!

The Hound of the Baskervilles opens Saturday 25 July 2015.  BOOK NOW:  phone 04 801 7992 or online at www.circa.co.nz
William with his Hound of the Baskervilles cast mates (from left to right) Nigel Collins, Gavin Rutherford and Andrew Foster.  Photo by Stephen A'Court.