Interview with Michael Hurst

10 April 2024

Arts Laureate Michael Hurst ONZM is one of New Zealand’s most celebrated and successful stage and screen actors. His extensive career spanning more than four decades includes No Holds Bard, An Iliad, Hamlet, Macbeth, Chicago, The Life of Galileo, and most recently ATC’s King Lear. He will soon grace the stage at Wellington's Circa Theatre, starring in The Golden Ass, a one-man show he has written with Fiona Samuel and directed with John Gibson.

I caught up with Michael, mid-house move and deep in rehearsals, to find out what we can expect from the play, why he thinks a story written over 2,000 years ago is still relevant to audiences and how the heck he manages to juggle his multiple roles.

What can audiences expect from The Golden Ass?

It's entertaining, I have to say, because that's one of the reasons it sprung to mind. It's a chance for storytelling, for me to be able inhabit a lot of characters. It's just so ridiculously funny and at the same time potent because it's 2000 years old. I keep saying to people, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And when you get that, when the audience gets it - I've updated it, sure, in terms of names and things - it’s very uplifting.

The original story was written almost 2,000 years ago. How is something this old relevant to modern audiences?

As I said, that saying – the more things change, the more they stay the same – is quite true. The Romans are two things, really. They're kind of alien because they killed each other with swords and had crucifixion and slaves, but at the same time, they're so like us. And in this story, it's the eternal story. Man gets turned into a donkey. Nobody notices the donkey, so they behave the way humans behave in front of him and he gets to see all of this stuff and to learn from that. So it’s exactly relevant.

I say it's a plea for empathy in a world that's gone mad. You've only got to look around you. The parallels are extraordinary. The fall of the Roman Republic and the fall of the American Republican Party. The whole disintegration, the lies, the bullshit, the bread and circuses. All of that. I just think it's good to be reminded that we need to really change or things will just stay the same.

Well, that's the thing, isn't it? Of course, everything has stayed the same for 2,000 years and people are still killing each other, just more with weapons of mass destruction rather than a single sword and a single person.

That's right. And that's in the background of this because we're talking about basic human behaviour. Characters that you recognise. The short sighted ones, the cruel ones, the selfish ones, the greedy ones. They’re all the same and all of these behaviours weave through and in the end, what the main character, Lucius, realises is that the only way forward is empathy rather than taking.

You're all over this production, having written it, directing it, and performing it. How do you juggle all the different roles, particularly directing your own performance?

That's a that's an interesting one. I adapted it from the original. So it's really come from me because it took a year just to get it to a point where I could actually read it out loud and make it make sense, make it have a theatrical potency. So the writer/producer part of me is already there.

Acting. I just got up there. I rehearsed it in an empty room. It was a strange man talking to himself in an empty room for two or three weeks. It was in a community centre. I'm not sure what they thought I was doing! Man running around pretending to be donkey, man yelling at the top of his voice.

But by the time I got to show it to people, all it needed was for me to see if it worked. If it was too long, if it was too short. The characterisations and and all of that came pretty quickly though, and you have to understand, I made it almost two years ago now. I've toured it, I've shortened it, I've rewritten it. I've had other people come in to help me from that point.

Fiona Samuel came in. She's a fantastic New Zealand writer of theatre and television and film. She also brings a female perspective to it. There's been a lot of feeding in and those people, Fiona, my producer Charlie, all my friends have no qualms in telling me if it gets boring or if it's too long or too short or whatever. But also, you're right. I am all over it. I own it, so I am happy to be that one man band on this.

It's different every night. It's like running an individual race in a way. It's like jumping into a swimming pool or whatever it is, and you're off. You can't stop it once you start. We've had lots of feedback from the audience too, so I've been able to see what works when I'm performing. It has changed a lot over the last two years, and I'll be doing stuff in this one that I've not done before.

Your career has spanned theatre, film and television. Do you have a favourite?

I love being on stage. I have to own up to that. I love that thrill of being in the moment. If I stop and think, what would I do in any given moment, what I could jump to just like that? If I could do nothing else, I probably would pick the stage.

But then again, you know, film and television.... I love directing. In a way, it's another kind of performance for me. So, it's hard to say. Variety has always been part of what I do because in New Zealand, growing up and getting into the industry in the 70s, you had to. There wasn't much, so you had to do a lot of things - fight choreography, stunts, that sort of thing. And directing, acting, singing.

I love it all, really, but being on stage is the number one.

It's the athletic aspect of it, and that it’s real. With The Golden Ass, one of the things I love about it is for me, it feels like I'm connecting to 2000 years of storytelling or even older. From the traditions of the ancient storytellers.

One of the things I've done is made this show so I can do it outside without anything, without any lights. I can do it anywhere so, if the world goes to hell in a handbasket, you'll see me running around with my carpet, making a living, getting food or whatever.

Well, that's very primal, isn't it? You can just go into the town square and perform.

It is that feeling. And sometimes it has been when we toured it. I’ve played it in church tea rooms, in an opera house, but also in someone's house.

And that's in itself is an amazing experience. All of that variety is good, good for an actor. I made a rule for myself, whatever the venue, it's going to be fantastic for the show, it doesn't matter what. I did it in a pub in Twizel because the theatre was closed, having repairs, and they couldn't close the commercial kitchen with the wide open doors. So I did the whole thing with chefs yelling their orders and people banging and crashing. And it was very good - good for my discipline.

And what's next for you?

I'm also directing a production of Prima Facie, which is doing the rounds at the moment, a solo show for a woman. My friend Cassandra got the rights to tour it to all the smaller towns, all through the North Island and all around the place.  I'm directing her in that.

And then at the end of the year, in September, Jennifer [Ward-Lealand] and I are doing a two- hander called In Other Words, which we're just in the process of organising now. So that's going to be good, to be on stage with Jennifer for the first time in... Well, we've never been on stage, just the two of us, so that'll be good. I’m looking forward to it.

Thank you so much, Michael. It was lovely speaking to you. best of luck with The Golden Ass.

Michael Hurst performs The Golden Ass 20 April to 11 May at Circa Theatre. You can purchase tickets here.

Coming at you full force via ancient Rome, Michael Hurst’s free-wheeling adaptation of the notorious original is a wild ride through a timeless world of bandits, goddesses, witches, circuses, sandals, slaves and sex.