The year 2013 saw Mark Elderkin, Pierre Malherbe, and Nicholas Pauling together on the Fugard Studio stage in award-winning dark comedy CHAMP. Now, in 2018, they’re reunited on the Fugard Theatre main stage as part of the stellar cast of the romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love —also directed by CHAMP director, Greg Karvellas, and including in the cast CHAMP writer, Louis Viljoen. When presented with the chance to get Elderkin, Malherbe, and Pauling together for a cross-over Spotlight interview, it was an opportunity that simply had to be seized.
Pauling reprises the role of Ned Alleyn, the quintessential arrogant yet talented leading man, with Elderkin once more taking up the role of Burbage, rival actor and theatre owner. Malherbe joins in on the fun as Nol, also an actor. So all three these talented real-life performers in some way represent caricatures of creatives in Shakespeare’s time; they’re all part of the thespian club characterised by ‘haves, have-nots, want-nots, up-starts, young bucks, old farts, little men, big boys and the inevitable slide into booze-fuelled depression’.
What then, you may wonder, is the Shakespeare in Love link —apart from the fact that all three actors starred in CHAMP? Exactly the description in the paragraph above, a direct quote form the press release for CHAMP, a play about ‘three actors, scraping the bottom of the barrel while working as children's entertainers in a mall’ and dealing with unreasonable management, all while dressed in bear suits. So even though times have changed, when you for a moment leave aside the love story of Will and Voila (as the fictional inspiration for Romeo and Juliet), the survival of the actor in the realm of theatre remains a captivating theme, whether dressed as dark (CHAMP) or romantic (Shakespeare in Love) comedy.
At least, this was my very longwinded way of tricking Pauling, Elderkin, and Malherbe —at that stage discussing who in their fictional rock band would be the front man (and ultimately deciding on drummer Alleyn/Pauling)— into doing the Shakespeare in Love interview five years post CHAMP.
‘I’m just doing the same thing I always do, just shouting and pointing,’ quips Pauling. ‘I’m just doing the CHAMP character in a different costume.’
Getting into the comparative analogy swing of the discussion, Elderkin also reflects on Burbage —one of the wealthier characters whose focus is getting his hand on a Shakespeare script— as, ‘on paper, quite dull’. Though ‘dull’, in fairness, Burbage does reveal his true thespian loyalty at a certain stage. He may be constantly squabbling with the character Henslowe (a struggling impresario played by Darron Araujo, also a CHAMP alumnus from its Artscape run) about getting the rights to the Bard’s ‘Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter’, yet in the end he gives a moving and sincere speech about unity in theatre for the greater good of the arts. But, Elderkin cautions, ‘they were all hustlers’.
Although their characters to various degrees are inspired by real people of Shakespeare’s time (some even more adored by their peers than Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth were), the focus of Shakespeare in Love is not informed by such seriousness; rather, it presents itself as a quirky parody set in the context of the theatre industry of the time.
At this point, the guys kind of go off ‘script’, like the bears in CHAMP would, in debating what they bring to Shakespeare in Love. Malherbe ultimately declares, ‘I have no funny lines, but I try and make them funny by putting on a Northern accent,’ while Pauling responds, ‘I have a lot of joke lines and I can’t make any of them funny, so it’s back to drama school for me!’
From my ring-side seat to this discussion, it’s clear that the guys do in fact have a knack for comedy, although they do try to confound this assumption with a qualification from Pauling that ‘expectations are dangerous and should be kept very low’.
After Pauling’s musing that he might have to go back to drama school, the guys share that they are all UCT graduates. Even though Malherbe studied there a few years before Elderkin and Pauling, Elderkin brought the ‘band’ together in an indirect way: ‘Nick and I were at drama school together with him being first year in 2002 when I was in my second year, but in 2001 I did my first professional show along with Pierre at Maynardville’. Just to make sure that the guys’ shared theatre experiences constantly (re)align, Pauling and Elderkin shared the Maynardville stage in 2017.
During the pursuit of their acting careers, these three really do seem to be constantly crossing paths.
‘We just put up with each other,’ Malherbe says.
‘Just like a band in that respect,’ Pauling adds; ‘we hate each other’s guts but we still play together.’
‘Like The Who or Pink Floyd!’ Malherbe exclaims.
‘Or like Oasis,’ says Pauling. ‘We’re like the Gallagher brothers going, “Dude, we’re broke again, we have to do another show!”’
With all this banter, letting the interview naturally evolve to focus more on the personalities and energy of the CHAMP actors in Shakespeare in Love than on the two plays specifically, it soon becomes evident that Pauling, Elderkin, and Malherbe are truly at ease with one another as creatives. Having seen them in various plays together, I can attest to the fact that that level of comfort definitely adds to the appeal of any show they are in. So, can they read each other, or simply guess the head space each person is in during a performance?
‘I’m not often in a headspace,’ Pauling reveals, ‘so … tough to read that.’ On a more serious note, he admits, ‘I think we’ve worked together enough to know that if someone suggests something it’s to help everyone in the play and not an ego thing at all’.
‘I think we can really discuss things. I know I can say on a day that I’m struggling, “Guys, can you help me out here? What can we work through?”.’
Elderkin agrees that their connection definitely helps from that perspective. ‘With other actors you may not be able to do that, because of the fear that someone may just go, “ah, uhm, ah,” eventually just say “thank you” and actually be offended.’
Apparently, the sharing of notes in such an open and honest manner was very much part of Elderkin and Pauling’s preparation process for their performances in the 2017 Maynardville staging of Twelfth Night. Talking about that process, however, revealed a bit of a ‘sore point’: Elderkin went on to win a Fleur du Cap award for his performance as Malvolio, but forgot to thank Pauling in his acceptance speech for his notes, an oversight that Pauling apparently has not forgotten. ‘I was going to walk back and then say some more,’ Elderkin tries to explain away his faux pas.
‘No, no, no, no’, Pauling stops him in a pretend jaded tone, proving that if that ‘disappointment’ didn’t break up this band, it’s safe to say that the guys will still be making theatre together for a long time coming.
Drawing their attention back to the actual topic of the interview —their comedic roles in CHAMP and Shakespeare in Love— calls for another bit of trickery in the form of a rascally question: If two envelopes were put in front of them, one marked ‘dark comedy’ and the other ‘romantic comedy’, which one would they choose without knowing anything about the script?
The three actors stare at each other for a few seconds —probably communicating through the Jedi-like mind-power they seem to have developed working together over the years— and all simultaneously declare, ‘dark comedy’. But then doubt sets in after the knee-jerk reaction with the realisation that they are currently on stage in a romantic comedy.
Malherbe is first to qualify, because ‘there’s more and better dark comedies than there are romantic comedies, so statistically as a performer dark comedy is usually the safest bet if you haven’t read the script’.
‘That’s true,’ Pauling keenly agrees.
‘But it could be written by Louis [Viljoen], and then you’re like, “Ah, f*ck, I should have taken the romantic comedy!”’ Elderkin pokes at the bears with a smirk.
Luckily for these three dark comedy lovers their (immediate) future employment is safe, as both their dark comedy and romantic comedy roles drew them to the directing style of Karvellas, who has a keen eye for using their talents in just the right way. This, they admit, is a big part of what makes Shakespeare in Love such an enjoyable experience for them. ‘The cast also adds to this being the exception to the dark comedy rule for us,’ Pauling elaborates.
‘That’s obviously excluding Greg [Karvellas],’ Elderkin mischievously amps up his CHAMPness to trigger another great bout of laughter from the guys, who are all clearly very fond of everyone involved in the journey that has brought them full circle from the Bears to the Bard.
Getting a bit more serious regarding the appeal of this Shakespeare in Love staging, Elderkin says that, ‘even though Burbage has the potential to be a dull character, here, and also because you are on stage with friends, you get the opportunity to play’.
‘Sometimes a story also does not allow for a lot of exploration within a supporting character role,’ Pauling reflects, but he believes that, as a romantic comedy, Shakespeare in Love doesn’t impose such restrictive boundaries on the performers.
‘Also,’ Elderkin continues, ‘because you come on in spurts and everyone is in essence an extra [with Shakespeare in Love mainly being an ensemble-driven production within its thespian club sub-plot] everyone just kind of goes, “well, let’s have fun!”.’
‘Yes,’ Pauling agrees, ‘we’re allowed to take licence and be mischievous.’ Elderkin links that licence (within bounds) to the fact that the characters they are playing aren’t really well known when compared to Will/Romeo and Viola/Juliet. ‘A lot of people won’t know who our guys are, so you can turn them into whoever you want without worrying about a factual basis; we can be a bit outrageous.’
Given then that this romantic comedy allows them, as supporting actors, a lot of freedom to express themselves, what about their characters do they like most?
‘I like that my character is a complete idiot, a ponce, and just an inflated version of myself,’ Pauling offers, ‘so it’s quite easy to slip into.’
‘Mine’s a really bad actor, and it’s always fun playing a bad actor,’ Malherbe contributes, before Pauling asserts, ‘because actors are ponces, so it’s fun to take the piss out of them’.
‘Yeah,’ Elderkin agrees, ‘same for me; my character is highly insecure, so I get to be very insecure but at the same time be just kind of a rich ponce too.’
‘All these personalities actually do exist,’ Malherbe says, adding a philosophical angle to the parody analyses.
‘In a casting studio in Cape Town, you will find examples of each and every single one of these characters,’ continues Elderkin. ‘Yeah’, Pauling concurs, ‘a lot of actors behave like our characters and it’s fun to take the piss’.
Well then, if these very ‘well adjusted' characters they portray had to sit down in a bar with the play’s young Will Shakespeare and offer him some advice as to how to solve his love-struck writer’s block conundrum, what would they say?
‘I’d order him some more beers,’ Elderkin declares candidly.
‘Some more beers, definitely,’ comes Pauling’s endorsement, ‘while also telling him, “Stop! Just stop!”.’
‘Is that good advice?’ He turns to Malherbe and Elderkin in search of confirmation.
‘Yeah, it is,’ Elderkin comments. ‘I mean, have some fun man! Just stop whining!’
Pauling then concludes the bar-side therapy for the Bard with, ‘Yeah, just go and get the girl! Also, sonnets? That’s such an old fashioned way to woo someone; lighten up, man!’.
This style of ‘support’ from Alleyn and Burbage is completely different to how Nol would approach Will, Malherbe reveals. ‘Because he’s such a bad actor, he’s just completely in awe of Will, so he will not ever criticise anything he thinks or says’.
‘But he’s not famous yet!’ Elderkin lets his inner privileged Burbage interject.
‘It’s more that Nol is so happy just to be “in it” with him, that he can write anything; Nol just wants to be in the play,’ Malherbe counters. ‘He will do anything in any play!’
‘Kind of like this; and it’s come full [CHAMP] circle,’ Pauling contextualises the jovial laughter that echoes through the Fugard foyer, with utterances of ‘Yeah!’ and ‘It so has!’ in between chuckles from Malherbe and Elderkin.
Mid-laughter, the guys again get delightfully side-tracked, this time by a comparative Pearl Jam discussion. This is all just part of their charm, and I simply can’t wait to see that fun and carefree ‘band’ energy transform their characters on stage at the Fugard Theatre in Shakespeare in Love.
The run ends on 6 October 2018, so book your tickets soonest online through the Fugard Theatre website at www.thefugard.com.
All photos are by Candice van Litsenborgh and used with the permission of Canned Rice Productions. The photos remain their property. Permission must be obtained from Canned Rice Productions before using these photos in any capacity that goes beyond the sharing of this online article.