Shaun Micallef talks to Paul Galloway about his odd coupling with Francis Greenslade
‘Could I live with Francis?’ Shaun Micallef sips his tea as he ponders this hypothetical yet vaguely disturbing question. He and long-time co-star Francis Greenslade will appear together for MTC in October in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, about Felix and Oscar, a fussbudget and a slob, two divorced men who disastrously decide to share a New York apartment. So it felt appropriate to ask whether Micallef and Greenslade could ever be happy flatmates.
‘Well, I could probably live with him, but he couldn’t live with me’, Micallef says. ‘Because I annoy him apparently. I didn’t realise this for about two years. But he’d be reading in his dressing room – he likes to read and do crosswords – and I’d come in and think: “Oh, he’s not doing anything. I’ll talk to him.” And it wasn’t until at least two years of this that he mentioned to me that, actually, he was doing something: he was reading a book. He wasn’t waiting to be entertained by me, as it happened. So I’m sure MTC will give us separate dressing rooms and that will be a good thing.’
Micallef and Greenslade only occasionally socialise outside work, but they’ve known each other for more than thirty years, meeting as students at Adelaide University in the early eighties. Micallef, then in his second year, was involved in the Footlights Club and Greenslade was one of the young freshers auditioning to join.
‘He impressed me, because he was the only person I’d seen that day who had any talent at all.’ Micallef recalls. ‘He could play the piano. He demonstrated an actual ability. Most of us did comedy by default, because we couldn’t do anything else; couldn’t dance, couldn’t sing, couldn’t do anything. He auditioned with Herod’s song from Jesus Christ Superstar and blew us away. So we were both about eighteen and we fell into working with each other. It’s become a habit now.’
If that’s true, it must be a pleasurable habit for both of them. There’ll be only a small break between the end of this current season of Mad as Hell on ABC Television, where Greenslade’s job is to play a disorienting array of characters for Micallef to interview, and the start of rehearsals for The Odd Couple. The show was all their idea. ‘We were looking for a property for Francis and me to do,’ Micallef says. ‘And the double-act aspect of the play was appealing. We’ve worked on so many things – on television, in the early days at University, on stage – and usually the material was something I had written myself. So we thought, let’s go for the best material possible and be equals in it. It is rather nice just to give ourselves over to a director and serve [someone else’s] script. Such a great script.’
They approached MTC’s Artistic Director Brett Sheehy, who thought Micallef, Greenslade and Neil Simon’s classic comedy was an irresistible combination. However, they were gently dissuaded from another idea they had.
‘Part of the original pitch was that it would be nice to alternate the roles,’ he says. ‘If you think about it, while you’re rehearsing anyway and have learnt the play, you might as well learn the other role and do a little Gielgud-Olivier switch about halfway through the season. Maybe people would come more than once to see the alternate interpretations. Perhaps not everyone, but a third, perhaps, would come again. That’s not too much to expect, is it? A quarter? Anyway, apparently this brilliant idea proved too problematic in terms of organising, announcing and selling it. It was thought best to keep it simple.’
Still, there remained the question of who would play which role. ‘I was happy either way, though I thought I’d be a more natural Felix. So I wasn’t pushing to play Oscar, but Francis wanted to play Felix. So, after getting the show up, we basically had to audition for our roles. We did a reading for Peter Houghton, the director, and switched roles after lunch. We showed him our alternate versions in a chair-and-table environment, but in the end Peter felt that me as Felix was the wiser casting. And it was good for me because there are fewer lines.’
Partly that’s because Felix doesn’t come on for at least ten minutes after the start, I remind him.
‘Yes, so as I walk on, I expect the audience will give me a round [of applause]. And Francis won’t get one, because he’s discovered when the curtain comes up.’
I tell him that getting a round from the audience on entrance might be more a Broadway tradition. Melbourne audiences tend to expect you to do something for your applause. He feigns disappointment.
‘Perhaps, I can give a slight bow or something,’ he says. ‘Apparently, there are little tricks that you can do to milk a round from the audience. A certain way you hold your body as you enter, a pause.’ He thinks for a second and sips his tea. ‘Yes, I need to speak to a few old pros about how that’s done.’
Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple is playing from 5 November at Southbank Theatre.