For actor Toby Schmitz, there’s nothing like the exhilaration of being on stage, but for the past week he’s replicated some of that feeling in a series of live-streamed performances of Will Eno’s Thom Pain. He speaks about playing Hamlet, the vitality of theatre and keeping his ‘art spark’ alight in the Covid-19 lockdown. “The audience is the final director that teaches you things you would never have thought of. You know, if one person moves their leg it may mean nothing, but if four people do, then you’ve lost them somehow.” By Peter Craven.

Actor Toby Schmitz’s live wire

Toby Schmitz in Thom Pain.
Toby Schmitz in Thom Pain.
Credit: Trent Suidgeest

Toby Schmitz is one of Australia’s better actors. He’s acted with everybody – Chekhov’s Platonov with Cate Blanchett, The Importance of Being Earnest with Geoffrey Rush – and at 43 he sounds and looks a good deal younger, with his sparkling, still-boyish good looks. There’s no Australian actor who I would rather see play Hamlet and it was when he was playing that moody melancholic prince that he met the man whose 55-minute monologue he’s been performing live, on successive nights in the past few days. The final performance of Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) is in fact this morning, July 4, which tallies (or does it?) with the fact that the character who speaks the monologue shares a name with one of the great radicals in American history.

The show is radical enough and it is co-directed by Andrew Henry and Schmitz. It has nine cameras to show the actor in a variety of shadings and close-ups and different angles as he speaks with great tonal variety and shattering shifts of mood about a man who remembers being stung by a bee and whose aria of doubt and self-assertion is done with virtuosic intensity. You could get a ticket to these live performances and pay as much or as little as you liked: you could pay $100 or nothing, but the ritual of potential payment is integral to this live performance that seems peculiarly suited to our plague time.

Of this, Schmitz says, “My first reaction is not so much one of pessimism as a quiet acceptance of the fact that I will not be working for 12 months.” He says he keeps his “art spark” alive by reading, writing and looking after his child.

“A four-year-old daughter is a good thing to turn your attention to,” he says. “And, besides, we’re a lot better off than a lot of people because you can just step outside into the Sydney sun and keep in touch with your chums.”

He explains that they decided to do Thom Pain as an actual live show for both his experience as an actor and for the audience’s sense of the tingle and the excitement.

“We’ve got the words and we’ve got the cameras and I think more of it works than doesn’t. It’s a very ambitious play and I’m glad I didn’t discover it until I was in my early 30s. If I’d devoured it in my 20s it would probably have been with a young man’s anger.” He tells me how he met Eno in Brisbane when he was doing Hamlet and “wept over the coffee table”. Schmitz’s father told him to take the American playwright to breakfast the next day and so they began their long relationship.

He admired the depth of Eno’s experience. “He was someone whose reading of the Shakespearean canon had made him write plays.” This reminds me of an exchange on Q&A in 2018 between Schmitz and Miles Gregory, the New Zealand director of the Pop-up Globe, who declared that Shakespeare wasn’t the greatest poet around. Well, if he isn’t, who is? asked Schmitz. Well, there’s T. S. Eliot, said Gregory. Schmitz and I agree that Eliot, great poet and critic that he was, would turn in his grave at the idea of being mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare. “Are we supposed to dismiss all the people whose shoulders we stand on,” Schmitz says, “from Will Shakespeare to Dick Burbage [Shakespeare’s leading man who created such roles as Hamlet and King Lear]?” Schmitz says how lucky he was to have got some sense of lineage from his education and then from mentors such as Richard Cottrell at NIDA.

It was also amusing to hear that Schmitz, like me, had grown up with a recording of Richard Burton’s legendary 1964 Hamlet on Broadway. “I was raised on Burton’s Hamlet,” he says. “When I played Hamlet I had to make a conscious effort not to break the line there where he does.” He says every new generation of Hamlets is likely to piss off the older ones – John Gielgud, after all, had directed Burton but not been wild about him.

But Schmitz obviously reveres the tradition of the classical theatre. He talks about Stephen Fry’s tribute to Ian Holm, who died two weeks ago: Fry played a snippet of Holm – great as Iago, great as Richard III, great in Pinter – doing Puck’s last speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It was hair-raisingly good,” Schmitz says.

Toby Schmitz reveres Shakespeare like a Bible. “You could always pick up Shakespeare and start mouthing it and murmuring it wherever you are.” He loves the culture of theatre, its history and tradition. “It makes me feel collegiate,” he says.

Somehow the conversation drifts back to his schooling at Scotch College in Perth. “Did I like it?” he asks. “I think I started to put on the rose-tinted spectacles almost as soon as it was over. They used to beat us. Things were slowly changing but there was still corporal punishment. Perth in the 1980s was like somewhere else decades earlier. School taught me discipline but there was an emphasis on cadets and bagpipes and all that. All under the guise of pastoral care. It was a mixed blessing but there were some nice teachers.” As soon as he got to the University of Western Australia, caning and military drills were out the window.

“I smoked my first joint,” he says. “I went to my first toga party and I met Tim Minchin.” Like the legendary creator of Matilda the Musical, Schmitz tried his hand at stand-up in pubs where the air was as heavy with racism as it was with tobacco smoke. And his life was dominated by the “subterfuge” of pretending to do an arts/law degree while missing all his tutorials and lectures and keeping this a secret from his parents.

I ask him about his relationship with his partner, Ella Scott Lynch. He says she’s a tremendous actress but they’re currently separated “so there’s no black-and-white answer to what our relationship is like”. On the other hand he says he’s proud of that because he lives very close to Scott Lynch and sees his daughter every day. “I’m there in the morning and I’m there in the evening and then there’s the time she stays with me.” He sounds very confident and proud of his daughter. “The separation doesn’t mean I see any less of her.”

It’s odd with Toby Schmitz. He radiates a sort of youthful passion for life that’s conterminous with his sense of dedication to his profession, without sounding desperately obsessed with success. You feel that he would be an actor if he were on a desert island and there is something almost monk-like, almost ascetic, about his devotion to it. I remember Brian Cox describing Ian McKellen as a monk of the theatre and Schmitz has the same quality even if he sounds like an ageing acolyte. He is bemused by people telling him it’s such an expense of time and effort to do this series of live performances using an expensive array of cameras, rather than just one camera and recording the show once. “I say to them, well, when you acted in the theatre, you had to find a babysitter anyway. What’s so different?”

He believes in the most impassioned way in the idea of something being “live”. He says he paid to hear one of his favourite bands, DMA’S, stream a live gig. “I went and drank a stubby on the balcony with a beanie on and it was thrilling. I would never have watched them if it were prerecorded.”

It’s as if he has a philosophy of the theatre that has at its centre the idea of doing it live. And he emphasises that the idea of live to air is integral to our culture: it governs our sense of the news, of the way television works, in ways we are scarcely conscious of, from current affairs to sport. It’s part of what we make of social media.

It’s striking the way live performance is both Schmitz’s drug and his discipline. His mother is a fifth-generation Australian and his father came to Australia as a Dutch–Indonesian teenager. His father was a schoolteacher with an acute sense of history and the great world elsewhere, even though he loved Perth for its sailing, its sun, its sense of leisure. Schmitz says, “I love the weather. I think of Perth as a kind of health spa. I love the desert sun and the beaches. When I go there, after a few days, I turn off my phone. I don’t like the small-world aspect of it.” On the other hand, he has a strong sense of “sandgropers” as punching above their weight in the rest of Australia. “That’s hard to say, being a sandgroper myself,” he says, “but it is my impression.”

And – somehow – at the centre of that sense of being an outlander there’s that quite rigorous apprehension of the idea of the theatre, which you suspect would be less common with actors from Sydney or Melbourne.

So is his experience of Thom Pain one of exhilaration at being able to do something with live performance, or does he find himself spiralling down to the melancholy, the sense of ontological dislocation, the fundamental “who am I?” desolation close to the heart of this strange minimalist monologue that defeats critical paraphrase?

“That’s a good question,” Schmitz says. “Forty-eight hours into the experience I’m overwhelmingly leaning towards exhilaration. It’s all a lot more playful than it might be. Look, I’ve got nine cameras. I think of one of those cameras as a middle-aged woman called Christine. And I think of this one over here as an enraged millennial who’s been dragged to the theatre and can think of nothing worse. But the camera lens can be anyone I want. It could be an audience of 80 people at The Ensemble or it could be thousands at Wembley, but then there’s camera five which makes me feel bolshie.”

Then he shifts tone a little and talks about the desolate dirty darkness of the pub in which they are filming. “Even the theatre ghosts are missing,” he says, on a sudden wry note of elegy.

But he’s soon lost, almost brightly, in the stage spotlight, this endeavour of performing Will Eno’s Thom Pain. It is, after all, literally a one-man show, as Hamlet is only symbolically. “I can hear the creak of my own shoes,” says Schmitz. It’s as if he’s about to say he can hear the drumbeat of his own heart, the rhythm of his breath. Is this meditation, masturbation, where are we here?

Suddenly Schmitz invokes the audience again, that entity watching him grow into a role. He says where he is now, two days in, it’s as if the performance were at the preview or dress-rehearsal stage. But then he’s off with his mythology of the audience, which he loves to imagine, just as, in a lost past, he loved to move with them.

“The audience is the final director that teaches you things you would never have thought of. You know, if one person moves their leg it may mean nothing, but if four people do, then you’ve lost them somehow. It’s the audience that teaches you that you’re going too fast, that you’re going too slow, that you didn’t hit the consonants sharply enough.”

And it’s a fascination for Toby Schmitz, after he’s completed a performance, to look at his own private tape and see what worked, what failed, what went sideways or nowhere or soared. The seriousness with which he takes the idea of the play is to Schmitz’s credit and to Andrew Henry’s, united in their belief in the sheer electricity of theatre live.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 4, 2020 as "Live wire".

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