Farce wasn’t necessarily at the top of Simon Burke’s priority list for 2017. However, between his leading role in Declan Greene’s The Homosexuals, Or ‘Faggots’, which played at Malthouse Theatre and Griffin Theatre earlier this year, and Michael Frayn’s timeless classic Noises Off, a co-production between Queensland Theatre and MTC, Simon will end up spending eight months of his year performing this enduring genre of comedy.
‘You’re always on when you’re acting, but you have to be 500 per cent on when you’re doing farce,’ he says. ‘To work on two pieces, one that’s brand new, but taken all the traditional elements of farce, and then go straight into possibly the greatest modern farce ever written … It’s a really nice tie in for me.’
Simon says his stint at Malthouse Theatre was like running on a treadmill for 90 minutes every night, in front of a live audience, certainly honing his performance fitness for Noises Off.
‘What I found from the rehearsals of Homosexuals… was that precision has to be in every compartment. It’s not just physical precision, but vocal. Obviously the script of Noises Off is tried and true and it couldn’t be improved on, but performance always can. The rigour of the writing of someone like Michael Frayn means that unless every single thing is powering, it’s just not going to work.’
For Simon, it was a production of A Flea in her Ear, starring a fresh-faced Alan Cumming on the West End, which inspired him to achieve a similar calibre of performance. ‘I didn’t know who he was at the timebut I remember looking at him and thinking, wow.’
Around the same time, Simon made his own West End debut starring opposite Dame Judi Dench for the National Theatre in London. The production was A Little Night Music – a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s farcical romance, staged at the Olivier Theatre for an eleven-month run.
‘I was unbelievably fortunate to play opposite Judi Dench in that. To watch her comic timing or the way she would change the inflection on a single syllable of a word; to watch the way she worked both physically and vocally was one of best experiences I’ve ever had.’
Simon’s appearance in A Little Night Music taught him the relevance of maintaining truth in comedy. ‘You always try and be truthful with roles, but I think with farce it’s more important than anywhere else. You have to be absolutely real.’
The idea of maintaining truthfulness in a farcical role is difficult, he says. ‘I always think, if this crazy thing happened to me, how would I actually react? Farce is just real characters in stupid situations. So no matter how crazy the situation gets it has to come from a place of truth.’
The misconception of people thinking comedy is easy is frustrating, says Simon. ‘I think people think that if they’re having fun, you must be having fun. And I love what I do, but you can ask anyone, comedy is the hardest of them all.’
Noises Off plays at Arts Centre Melbourne from 8 July.