Veteran comedian Frank Woodley relishes the role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Frank Woodley’s career began in 1987 when he first performed alongside Colin Lane at a stand-up comedy night in Collingwood. The two met competing in the niche world of theatresports, improvising their way into Australia’s comedy circuit, where they would maintain their stronghold for the next 20 years.
Lano and Woodley’s first show, Fence, collected the coveted Moosehead Award for Best Act at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 1993, and went on to play at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival where they scooped up the highest and most prestigious prize of the festival — the Perrier Award.
The duo cemented their places as Australian comedy royalty early on and after two decades of journeying around the country together, they decided to call it quits. They disbanded in 2007 with a national Goodbye tour; however, the long-time friends couldn’t help but regroup 11 years later with their reunion show Fly, which opened to high praise earlier this year.
Fortuitously, between tour dates, Woodley had time to take up the role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Twelfth Night. It wasn’t exactly the job Woodley was pursuing, but he was given some advice from his co-star Colin Hay: ‘At the age I’m at, when I was asked to do it and it made me scared, I thought that’s a good reason to do it. The fact that it felt daunting made it interesting.’
Woodley’s love of Shakespeare has fluctuated over the years. ‘I’ve seen between 10 – 15 productions of his, and I reckon four or five of them I absolutely loved and thought were amazing. The rest I’ve been pretty ambivalent about or thought were hard to watch,’ he says. Irrespective of his ambivalence towards certain productions, Woodley remains fascinated by the cultural reverence of the Bard. ‘I’d like to think that I’m essentially a curious person. My relationship with Shakespeare is partly this feeling of wonder about his place in our culture, because he’s clearly a phenomenon, and partly just a quest to understand his work.’
At the halfway mark of this production’s season, Woodley says he’s still discovering charms in the script that he’d previously missed or misunderstood. ‘You have to sort of accept that you’re not going to understand a lot of the specific details. I’ve found that by doing this production, and by being steeped in the language, by hearing it performed constantly while waiting to go on, there are still things where I think, ‘what on earth does that mean?’
‘One of my lines in the play is, “Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has.” So it’s full of these moral paradoxes, which are quite provocative. Either Shakespeare was prepared to really insult his audience at that time, or there weren’t as many conservative Christians living in the Elizabethan era as we thought.’
These discoveries keep Woodley’s appetite ravenous and his curiosity satiated. Performing alongside musical-theatre mainstays such as Tamsin Carroll, Esther Hannaford, Richard Piper and Christie Whelan Browne has been a joy and further learning opportunity, he says, and listening to the dulcet tones of former Men at Work frontman Colin Hay eight times a week has made the gig worthwhile.
It helps that the critics and audiences of Twelfth Night have relished Woodley’s performance as well. ‘Frank Woodley is a rubber-limbed delight…delivering a masterclass in physical comedy and vocal whimsy,’ Time Out declared. ‘It’s certainly Frank Woodley’s finest hour. His turn as idiot knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a virtuosic feat of clowning,’ exclaimed The Age.
One scene in particular — a skit where Woodley takes several minutes to enter through a doorway in a drunken stupor — has warranted a nightly mid-scene applause. The attention to detail in Woodley’s physicality meant that when the cast moved the play from MTC HQ’s rehearsal room to the Sumner Theatre, he was the only one to notice the considerable difference in the stage’s surface. His performance is dance-like in the way his character fumbles and fools around, he says, and so the softer Sumner floor changed the choreography of his routine.
It is perhaps not surprising that Woodley’s decades-long practice of stand-up comedy has made transitioning to mainstage theatre an adjustment all round though. Whilst most stage actors consider corpsing — or breaking character — the cardinal sin of live performance, Woodley has found several moments of occasional improvisation impossible to avoid throughout the season.
We wrap up our chat in the green room as Sir Andrew is called to the wings for the start of Act 2. Donning a purposely-greasy wig and his characteristic grin, it is easy to see how Woodley captured the heart of the nation all those years ago, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.