Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Photo: Dan Boud, Time Out
Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Photo: Dan Boud, Time Out
Features

The Modern Bard(s)

Following Eurovision, world tours, major musicals, TV shows and an acclaimed fifth studio album, Keir Nuttall and Kate Miller-Heidke return to the world of Shakespeare this year to compose for MTC’s season of Shakespeare’s musical comedy, As You Like It.

By Melanie Sheridan

Secure your seats to: As You Like It

It’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and with its gender-flipping, proto-feminist icon in the lead, As You Like It is also one of his most thematically contemporary. Add in the work’s emphasis on the performative nature of life, and you’ve got a timeless story particularly relevant to the modern era. All the world’s a (digital, social) stage, after all.

In addition to its beloved heroine, who speaks more lines than any other female Shakespearean character, As You Like It is also significant for containing more songs than any other of Shakespeare’s plays. It is the Bard’s musical comedy par excellence, so when it came to the music for Melbourne Theatre Company’s upcoming production, it made sense to choose Australia’s 21st century bards par excellence: Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall.

‘I’ve had such a rewarding time lately collaborating with Kate and Keir that I couldn’t help but explore another Shakespeare with them,’ says director Simon Phillips, who previously worked with the husband-and-wife musicians on MTC’s Twelfth Night in 2018. He recalls that ‘audiences responded so well to their heart-gladdening score’ for that work and he has no doubts about replicating it for this one. 

For Nuttall and Miller-Heidke’s part, they jumped at the opportunity to return to the Bard’s creations. ‘Engaging with Shakespeare in this way is simply unlike any other type of project we get to work on,’ Nuttall says. ‘It’s a sublime experience drinking in that language and really getting to know the forces at play in one of his plots. It’s a way of experiencing [his] work that is unlike being in an audience or studying it.’

 

‘[Jaques] is so much like a Romantic poet, he seems ahead of his time to me. If his character were alive today he would be Thom Yorke of Radiohead.’ – Keir Nuttall

 

The Shakespearean world they are entering this time is the Forest of Arden, a verdant setting for love and laughter where Rosalind flees with her cousin Celia after incurring the wrath of the duke. Another refugee in the woods is Rosalind’s lover, Orlando, who is being hunted by his own brother, Oliver. But with Rosalind disguised as a boy named Ganymede – and Oliver developing a crush on Ganymede’s ‘sister’, Aliena (aka Celia in disguise) – the lovers’ reunion and path to happiness will be full of hijinks. To paraphrase Rosalind, love is a madness.

The power of love

‘There are so many themes at play in As You Like It,’ Nuttall notes, ‘but in one sense I think the play is about power – two sets of brothers and their power over each other; the power of nature over the power of humanity; the power that an object of unrequited love has over their admirer; even at one point the power of physical strength, but ultimately the power of true love to conquer all.’

It’s the play’s focus on love and romance that is one of its biggest strengths, according to Nuttall. ‘I firmly believe in the power of love, and that music is intimately connected to this,’ he says, noting that both he and Miller-Heidke have immersed themselves in the play’s love of nature in order to compose some suitably emotional, romantic sounding music. ‘For want of a better word, we are trying to sound organic,’ he says, cringing as he air quotes the word organic. ‘Our music [also] plays with the theme of shifting identity by having little nods to contemporary music peeking out from behind the mask of traditional sounding folk music.’

Elaborating further on the particular sound they’re going for, Nuttall says they’ve followed in their own footsteps. ‘Like we did with Twelfth Night, our music aims to seem period while feeling timeless. We have arrived at a sort of folk sound that we hope achieves this – the music is grounded in English folk tradition harmonically and rhythmically, but tips its hat to 20th or 21st century pop music occasionally.’

Technically archaic

To help them achieve this, they’re using technology to ‘evoke the lack of it’. In practise, this means they have generated a keyboard sound ‘somewhere between a harpsichord and a dulcimer, the result of which is an instant association with early music.’ They will also be relying heavily on ‘the always timeless acoustic guitar’, as well as bass guitar to anchor and round out the bottom frequencies.

While the character of Rosalind is widely – and rightly – beloved by As You Like It fans, for Nuttall it’s Jaques who stands out. ‘Nearly every line he has is marvellous,’ he says, and he’s not understating things: many of Jaques’ lines are today some of Shakespeares’s best-known quotes, including the famous ‘all the world’s a stage’. To Nuttall, ‘He is so much like a Romantic poet, he seems ahead of his time to me. If his character were alive today he would be Thom Yorke of Radiohead.’

Music and melody

That As You Like It already contains so many original Shakespearean songs has not changed the way the two – ‘no purists’ – approach the work. ‘We generally disregard existing versions of old songs,’ Nuttall says. ‘Part of the fun is recreating melody to the existing text, and even being slightly irreverent as far as the metre and scansion goes if it serves our musical purposes. Simon will tend to pull us up if we go too far,’ he adds.

As You Like It will be the musical duo’s third collaboration with Simon Phillips, whose understanding of music is ‘staggering’, especially ‘for a guy who doesn’t play an instrument’ says Nuttall. Their collaborations are ‘a very dynamic back-and-forth process’ that remains fun and engaging, while always seeking to understand what the music ‘is trying to achieve dramatically, how it serves the overall work and what the constraints on us (if any) are.’

They’re also working once again with Twelfth Night musical director Ian McDonald, who Nuttall says is amazing at making them sound good. He ‘translates what we write into reality: arranging much of the music, and working within any musical limitations we might have – for instance, very few of the cast are musicians first; rather actors who can play.’

For one of the country’s most successful musicians (he and his wife co-wrote the song Zero Gravity, which Miller-Heidke performed at Eurovision), Nuttall is decidedly self-deprecating. Sharing a story about the opening of Twelfth Night, he says that while in the bathroom he overheard two audience members discussing how disappointed they were that the duo had made The Wind and the Rain a joyous song rather than the mournful one the text indicates. ‘I just want them to know that if we do similar in As You Like It to maybe take a deep breath and come on the ride with us. We mean no harm, and Shakespeare is strong enough to survive any minor damage we may do.’

As You Like It is on stage at Southbank Theatre from 13 November.

Published on 8 November 2021

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