Over coffee in the Qatar Airways MTC Lounge, Claire van der Boom and Michael Wahr discuss how they entered the world of acting, and how their instant friendship and respect for one another as artists has made this production a dream come true.
It was only a few months ago that the principal cast members of Shakespeare in Love, Michael Wahr and Claire van der Boom, were distant strangers. However, Director Simon Phillips’s meticulous casting process – one which saw both actors audition multiple times for their respective parts as William Shakespeare and Viola De Lesseps – brought them together as onstage lovers who would inspire the greatest love story of our time, Romeo and Juliet. In doing so, Phillips has helped forge an interminable real-life friendship.
Phillips asked the two leads, alongside Luke Arnold playing Kit Marlowe, to commence rehearsals a week ahead of the 15-person ensemble cast. Van der Boom remembers Phillips saying, ‘The clowns are coming, and you’ll have to learn to hang on to the love story for dear life.’ In spite of the chaos and frivolity that engulfs the Elizabethan theatre – including sword fights, ball scenes and abit with a dog – a romance must endure as the molten core of the play. If the audience doesn’t believe the love story, the play doesn’t work, Phillips said matter-of-factly.
So ‘hang on for dear life’ they did. For Wahr, his greatest achievement playing the part of Will has been the reaction van der Boom and he have garnered on stage every night. ‘Our trust was there very early on. The roles hinge on respect and trust, so working with Claire has been a highlight of this entire process.’ ‘Thankfully we hit it off immediately,’ van der Boom adds, ‘which made it easy.’
There’s a reason Phillips takes months to cast a show, the leads reflect. The chemistry between all the players is paramount, and when there are scenes requiring intimacy on stage, it’s especially crucial the company treat each other with the utmost respect as professional artists.
Both Wahr and van der Boom’s love of theatre started in high school under the tutelage of two exceptionally dedicated drama teachers. Scott Crozier recently finished directing plays after decades of doing so at St Michaels Grammar in Melbourne where Wahr played a young King Lear in Year 12. And Rebecca Cody taught van der Boom drama at PLC in Perth before accepting her current post as the first female principal of Geelong Grammar School. Both teachers had an enormous impact on their students’ decision to pursue professional acting, and both came to see their former pupils grace the Playhouse stage as Will and Viola.
‘I always reference Mr. Crozier as one of those teachers you hope to get, but never do. Except we got him,’ Wahr says. ‘He’s theologian of Shakespeare, so naturally that filtered through to us. He shared his passion of language and text, which really stuck with me. We got lucky.’
For van der Boom, her teacher’s approach was more wary. ‘She said, “I wouldn’t wish this career on anyone. But I think you might have the skin to survive it and I think you might have a really interesting life if you do.”’ After some hesitation and heeding the advice of various other adults in her orbit, van der Boom enrolled at Curtain University to study Theatre, as well as Journalism and Psychology. It wasn’t long, however, before she followed Cody’s instruction and auditioned and was accepted into NIDA’s acting program.
‘In this industry, it does become a matter of whether you actually can survive it,’ van der Boom continues. ‘Not to make it sound like a war zone, but sometimes it certainly feels like it is with the ups and downs of employment.’
Playwright Lee Hall’s adaptation of Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay was originally cast with 30 actors for its West End production. MTC’s cast has less than half that number, with performers taking on just as many characters, which means there are multiple costume changes for all players. Both Wahr and van der Boom recognise the ingenuity and ‘genius’ of Set & Costume Designer Gabriela Tylesova. ‘When I'm on the side of the stage and all of the players are in front of me before I enter…I get quite moved by the simple imagery,’ van der Boom says. ‘I'm looking at Wabash’s outfit, and these men in these colourful costumes and these ridiculous coloured tights and it’s just a brilliant image!’
If they could, they’d play these roles forever, they say in unison. Despite the magnitude of the show and the physio trips required to mediate the impact of performing on a revolve, on top of a raked stage, both Wahr and van der Boom say it’s been an opportunity better than they could ever dream of. The kind of job that makes all the striving and surviving off stage worthwhile.
See Shakespeare in Love at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse until August 17.
Published on 16 August 2019