ORIGIN STORIES: Superhal, PART 1 – The Director – TALKING ARTS

Peter Maple’s first of two articles on the up coming Mega-production Superhal.

Plotting, scheming, and generally planning to take over the world, director John Galea and I chat about his upcoming production, Superhal, which is enthusiastically in the process of mixing Shakespeare with superheroes.

This reimagining of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Henry IV Parts 1 & 2; and Henry V) as a superhero origin story will be unleashed upon the world for the very first time by The Puzzle Collective at the NIDA Parade Theatre this coming March.

It’s a bird… It’s a plane… It’s Superhal…!

You describe, for the show, “a fully imagined alternative universe, with the special effects and drama to match.” What sort of special effects can we expect to see on stage? Also, spectacle is such a prevalent factor in the current outpouring of superhero screen extravaganzas. Can theatre (ever hope to) match screen’s technology advantages?

I would argue that screen’s ‘technology advances’ are getting a little old hat to audiences. Everyone knows you can have great special effects and a terrible story, and CG can be done very badly or overused. In a theatre, when you see a fireball, it’s a real fireball. When someone drowns their enemy on stage, it’s real water. When Hal shoots his energy weapon (in Superhal), real sparks emanate from the stage. Theatre has an immediacy – a  viscerality and intimacy –  that cinema can’t match.

Having said that, we will be augmenting many of the practical effects with projection and some amazing lighting – including light up suits and props! And there will be more subtle ‘wow’ moments drawn from ‘stage magic’ and illusion traditions.

Adaptations and reimaginings are very prominent in our current sphere and cycle of telling stories – from Shakespeare and other classical texts, to now even the adaptation of only recent film and tv productions.

What benefits do you see in this?

I think adaptations and retellings can be done for the right reasons and for the wrong reasons. There can be an issue with the current Hollywood trend of re-cycling ‘known properties’ – in regards to taking artistic risks – and avoiding them…

However, works like the Henriad are 400 years old. If they are to have any relevance in this culture, I believe they must be told in a way that is accessible to this culture. 

Why the ‘superhero format’ for your Henry reimaginings?

The popularity and familiarity of superheroes allows us to make this story more accessible. There’s also a parallel there between the themes of the Henriad and themes explored in superhero comics and movies. For example: “What is honour? How should power be used? What is a hero? What elevates humans and what degrades them? Who can you count on when the chips are down?” 

“We hope to blur the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of performing arts.”

What do you consider to be the high and low of the performing arts worlds? Is there a need for such divides? Will those boundaries forever exist?

I suppose the reason I put those terms in quotation marks is that I don’t believe in those delineations. But one gets the sense that unfortunately Shakespeare is still enjoyed primarily by those who can afford expensive theatre tickets and expensive educations. I see a cultural divide between the certain audiences and their stereotypes; and that’s a dangerous divide. That’s what can give us the kind of political outcomes we’ve seen with the likes of Trump and Brexit. I see science fiction, fantasy and superheroes as a way to bridge that divide. These archetypes are not class based, they are across strata. Shakespeare knew this, and he’d be turning in his grave if he thought that his work had become in any way elitist.

Do you see Superhal as having a specific ‘market’? If so, who is that core target audience?

(Will it appeal to those outside of Shakespeare lovers, and superhero fans?)

I think that Superhal is primarily for lovers of Shakespeare and superheroes, but I do think it has a broad appeal. It’s a spectacle, an historical epic in the tradition of Braveheart and Gladiator; it’s sci-fi meets medieval; but under all that it’s about a man who is trying to find his identity under the shadow of a very powerful father figure. Henry IV haunts Hal and affects the new king’s decisions even after his death. And the surrogate father figure of Falstaff is, I think, an experience that many rebellious sons have had – an attractive, charismatic figure who turns out not to be trustworthy.

The Henriad is also surprisingly insightful in its exploration of romantic relationships, from the flirting between Hotspur and Lady Percy, to the grief of Lady Mortimer, to Hal’s comically awkward wooing of Katherine.

“The fantasy setting also allows for a consciously diverse cast and crew – race, gender, sexuality and concepts of ability / disability become much more fluid in an alternative sci-fi comic book world where traditional interpretations of English history can be completely re-imagined.”

Diversity is something I personally believe we need to be seeing more and more often in our stories and presentations of them.

How can we expect to this actualised on stage for Superhal?

Well unfortunately we’ve struggled to find the racial diversity we would have liked among the cast, but it’s there in the crew. We’ve drawn on a big team of designer/makers to design the lavish costumes and props for the show, and most of this team are primarily from outside Sydney, from regional and remote areas. We have succeeded in achieving gender parity with the ratio of male/female cast (not easy with Shakespeare!), and I think we’ve done it in a way that makes sense for the story and the characters. We’ve transformed Katherine of Valois from a prize into a political player, Poins into an interesting female platonic companion for Hal, and Queen Isabel into the real power of the French throne. But what I am most proud of about Superhal, is that a number of our cast and crew struggle with ‘invisible illnesses’ which can be quite debilitating – despite our challenges we have been able to achieve amazing things with Superhal.

What stories/characters/themes/mediums interest you most as an audience member?

In general? I love grand epics and stories based in myth and legend: King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Gilgamesh, Iliad/Odyssey, etc. However, I also love a great, meaningful story well told. (American Beauty is one of my favourite films. I am a big film, fan but I prefer to work in the theatre medium because of the connection theatre can achieve with a live audience.)

Having the initial instinct and drive to chase a new creative idea can be fulfilling and exciting – realising it, and making it work, can be a lot harder…

Ain’t that the truth…?!

How have you found the process of developing the show? And marrying the idea of Shakespeare with the superhero world? Has it been easier, harder, or as expected?

Is it becoming the show you wanted/intended?

It’s definitely been challenging. It’s been a long production and rehearsal process, and with that length and the nature of co-op theatre you get all sorts of logistic and technical challenges. The cast are amazing, and directing them has been one of the easiest parts of getting Superhal to happen. Some of the technical issues behind the practical effects we want to achieve have been more involved than I first imagined, but I’ve learned all these new skills in the process and expanded my network of engineers, artists and technicians. That has made it all worthwhile.

Who’s your favourite superhero and why?

I would have to go with the classic – Superman.

I grew up watching Superman movies and cartoons as a kid, and it always struck me that the thing that makes Superman who he is, is not his power, not his abilities, but the way he chooses to use them.

I also love the symbolism of Superman as an incarnation of the saviour archetype that is present in all cultures. He represents that hope that things can be better – that we can be better than we are.

Who’s your favourite Shakespeare character and why?

That’s a really hard one… There are characters I think that are amazing characters, but whom I would not want to be within two miles of. Iago comes to mind. I love the complete disregard Iago has for conscience and the Machiavellian scheming. I just love that Shakespeare went there, so completely, into that dark place, and brought back something like that.

Hal is fascinating in that he’s like a real human being – he is heroic and deeply flawed at the same time. But if you are asking if there is a Shakespearean character I would actually like to meet, or whom I admire, I suppose I would say Prospero from The Tempest. There’s a man who had all the power – had his enemies under his thumb – and chose forgiveness for the sake of his daughter.

That’s a real hero.

If you had a superpower what would it be?

Hahaha; at the moment, it would be the ability to copy myself so that I can wear all the different hats required to get Superhal over the line and still have a spare me to watch Shakespeare and superhero movies!

Do you like spandex?

Depends who’s asking and why!

Thanks for your time. Much appreciated.

[Superhal, PART 2 – The Actor, coming soon.]

…Up, up, and away..!

Peter Maple – Theatre Now and Talking Arts
Original publish date, February 20, 2017.