Colin Friels has never strayed far from Australian televisions. A beloved veteran of the stage and screen, Friels has a list of credits to his name that includes prominent titles such as Water Rats, Mystery Road and even long running children’s show PlaySchool. Most recently, he has signed on as the titular character in one-man play Scaramouche Jones, in a heartfelt, tragi-comic turn which is garnering rave reviews. Ahead of the play’s upcoming run at HOTA, Home of the Arts, we sat down with the award-winning actor to discuss all things thespian.
Famously honest and self-deprecating, (he cheerfully describes some of his own past performances as “terrible”, and “bloody awful”) Colin is nonetheless proud of Scaramouche Jones, a brilliant one-man show penned by British playwright Justin Butcher.
“It’s a beautiful little piece,” he sighs. “The audience really listens to it, they seem to like it, it’s a lovely thing to do.”
Scaramouche Jones is an ancient clown who has just given his final performance and retires to his dressing room alone, to wait for the stroke of midnight, and his 100th birthday. He reflects on an exceptional life, taking the audience on a journey through extraordinary adventures that span the furthest reaches of crumbling empires and the darkest episodes of the 20th century.
By turns bizarre, comic, epic, tragic – laced with the consummate wit of the circus clown – Scaramouche’s tale unfolds as an enchanting fable of poignancy and laughter.
“He’s courageous, he’s mischievous, he’s a clown, in the true sense of the word,” says Colin. “A tragic performer.”
Although touching on subjects such as the early loss of parents, slavery, and even the holocaust, the piece itself is “not a downer”, he insists.
“It’s actually quite uplifting. I hope the audience is engaged in the story as much as I am. Ultimately you just want people to walk out feeling better about their fellow human beings than before they came in. That’s probably the basis of it all. I’m not trying to say everything’s Pollyanna and sweet, but if you can come out of the theatre feeling maybe a bit more positive about the human condition, that’s great.”
This production of Scaramouche Jones benefits from the light touch of lauded contemporary Director Alkinos Tsilimidos, who has collaborated with Friels previously.
“He’s a great guy to work with,” says Colin. “He’s got a great objectivity and good aesthetic taste. He doesn’t clutter it. He stays in the play, and isn’t trying to draw attention to himself. Most directors are all like it’s THEIR production thinking about ‘will I be noticed, and will people think I’m clever?’ But Al is just interested in what it’s about.”
It was actually Tsilimidos who strong-armed Friels into taking on the project.
“I didn’t want to do it!” Colin exclaims.
“A one-man show is a terrifying idea, but once you get into it, it’s the story that I love about it. I think it’s innate in us, the idea of story, so just being able to tell an audience a good story is a pleasure.”
Of course, the pleasure of live theatre comes at the price of long hours and a tonne of hard slog, something Colin isn’t as keen on these days.
“Theatre is hard work, it’s dog’s work really, but you’ve got to be a good dog to do it well,” he laughs. “Had I the funds, I probably wouldn’t be going near any kind of work.”
He pauses and thinks for a second.
“Oh, yeah I would. If it’s something you like doing, why not keep doing it?”
This pragmatic approach to life has served Colin well over the years, keeping his feet well and truly on the ground when stardom has beckoned.
“I’m just a local actor,” he demurs.
“I’m no big deal, I just like to talk to an audience, basically.”
Being married to fellow actor and long time love Judy Davis, who has won a significant amount of acclaim both here and abroad, may also contribute to Colin’s propensity to downplay his long career. In the past he has indicated that he wouldn’t even bother to compare the talents of the two of them, and doesn’t like to inflict himself upon her as a co-star. I ask if that’s really true.
“Yes, I’m a bit slow,” he says. “It drives her mad!” He relents a little. “Sometimes it’s alright, we haven’t done it much but we’ve had a couple of beautiful shows. You get a bit self-conscious working with someone who knows you so intimately. I’d much rather act with strangers.”
Or, in the case of Scaramouche Jones, with no one. Colin is keen for Gold Coast audiences to come along and see what all the fuss is about when the tiny production arrives at the end of October.
“We tell it in a simple, small way,” he says. “I’d like audiences to come and see it, and be surprised.”
Come and be surprised by Scaramouche Jones when it arrives at HOTA, Home of the Arts on Wednesday 30 October for four consecutive performances. Tickets start from just $40 and are available at hota.com.au.