This year the Edinburgh Festival will once again see comedians stretching their wings to show that they can tackle serious subjects. One such group is the Comedians Theatre Company who will be performing the play Breaker Morant in the afternoon, before the cast do their individual shows in the evening. Directed by “Phil Nichol”:comic the cast includes Australian comedians “Adam Hills”:comic and “Sammy J”:comic along with Alistair Barrie, Brendon Burns, Heath Franklin, Mike Hayley, Nick Wilty, Phil Whelans and Rhys Darby. I spoke to Sammy J about the show and why he considers the extra workload to be worthwhile.
The cast includes a number of well known comedians, yet the story is a serious and tragic one. Is there a reason for this? What made a group of comics want to tackle this?
Phil Nichol started the “Comedians Theatre Company” a few years ago as a bit of a challenge; the idea was for a bunch of comedians to try their hand at acting in a play by day, before going on to do their solo shows at night. The last few years have seen productions of “Twelve Angry Men” and “Talk Radio” which were both very successful. Brendan Burns suggested this play to Phil as it has never been produced outside of Australia, and then Adam Hills came on board, as well as Heath Franklin (Chopper). For those unfamiliar with the play, it’s the true story of three Aussie soldiers who were charged by the British for alleged war crimes during the South African Boer War in 1901. Comedy gold. Phil asked me to play the part of Major Thomas, the young lawyer who defends the Australians. Having never acted before in my life, I lied about my credentials and have been in London rehearsing for the past month.
Will this version of Breaker Morant be based on the film/book, or are you approaching the story from a different angle?
We are doing the play “Breaker Morant” by Kenneth Ross, which was the original inspiration for the film and was written in 1978. As the film was based on the play much of the dialogue is similar, although unlike the film the play is set mainly in the courtroom and doesn’t involve flashbacks. But there has thankfully been no attempt to update it, like making the characters wear jeans or inserting topical references to George Bush.
What are you hoping the audience will take home after seeing this production?
An interesting theatrical experience, a hatred of the British, and a flyer for my solo show.
The film version is nearly 30 years old and the action takes place during the Boer war which was over 100 years ago. How will you make the story and issues relevant to an audience that may not have heard of this conflict?
It’s very much a period piece so it’s quite self-contained, although I think there are obvious parallels to be drawn with current situations. I actually suggested we work a SIM card and a flaming jeep into the script but this was rejected. The play is largely set in the courtroom and much of it is based on actual transcripts of the case, so I think it will succeed or fail depending on how well we pull off the dramatic scenes. They have had the whole cast do full military drills in costume at the start of each rehearsal, so we’re really getting a feel for army life. Although I do tend to look like a chicken when I march.
Is the production going to include sets/costumes/special effects? What size/location is the venue?
I’ve been very surprised by the scale of the production to be honest. We’ve got full military outfits that have been sourced from all over the place, including some original items from the period. We are performing in the 350-seat “Udderbelly”, which I am told is a big upside down purple cow tent. Sort of like the Umbrella Revolution, but more upside down, more purpley, and more cowesque.
Have you enjoyed the experience so far?
Very much so. I was reasonably shitscared going into rehearsals but the cast have a really good approach and it’s been great meeting the UK comics as well as working with Adam, Brendan and Heath. During the comedy festival Roadshow I actually met Jack Thompson, who famously played Major Thomas in the film. He came backstage and we all sat around quite star struck but he did have a good chat to me about the character. I was most disappointed to learn that Major Thomas did not drink a juice box in court. Being my first trip to Edinburgh it will be quite full on doing this show at 1:30pm then my own show at 7:00pm, every day for a month. I just hope people laugh during my show and stay silent during Breaker Morant, and not the other way around.
Many thanks to Sammy J
For booking details go to the Edinburgh Fringe “website”:http://www.edfringe.com/shows/detail.php?action=shows&id=4161