Hard though it may be to believe, October 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the television debut of Monty Python (in the first week of colour television on the BBC, according to Terry Jones – who credits this fact for the show’s long-lasting popularity).
From television to records to movies to live shows, the Pythons conquered every facet of comedy, and every area of the world – despite their exceedingly British sensibility (or perhaps because of it?). Among the most beloved and enduringly popular of the group’s canon is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the blissfully silly and hysterically funny ultra-low-budget movie from 1975 which takes on the Arthurian legend. Constantly poking holes in its own plot and veering off onto anachronistic tangents, before ultimately abandoning its storytelling completely, it’s a film which shouldn’t hang together but somehow captures enough comedy magic to make a satisfying whole.
In 2005, original Python Eric Idle adapted Monty Python and the Holy Grail into a Broadway musical, Monty Python’s Spamalot, keeping many of the scenes in the film word for word, and adding new songs and a belting diva The Lady of the Lake. Like the film, the musical surpassed all expectations to become a Tony award-winning smash hit. The original Broadway production of Spamalot transferred to Melbourne in 2007 but played only a short run. In 2019, a brand-new Australian production picked up the Python torch and ran with it at the hit-making Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney, and this version is going out on a national tour in 2020, which takes in Canberra, the Gold Coast, Parramatta and the NSW Central Coast, before landing in the Playhouse at Arts Centre Melbourne for a two-week season.
“We were really inspired by the original movie and the Python TV series for this production,” says
director Richard Carroll, whose raucous, even Python-esque, production of Calamity Jane was another smash hit at the Hayes and toured the country on and off for two years. “The Pythons delighted in their tiny budget, and made a virtue of it by sharing all the roles between the five of them, using Terry Gilliam graphics instead of building sets, and other tricks like that, which have become such a key part of the Python legacy.” Indeed, one of the most enduring and recognisable visual jokes from the film – King Arthur’s faithful servant Patsy clacking together two halves of coconuts to simulate the sound of hooves – came about because the Pythons couldn’t afford to hire real horses for the film shoot. “It’s genius,” says Carroll, “and it’s exactly the kind of thing we love about theatre – seeing inventive and humorous devices used to represent familiar things in strange and unusual ways – only it was on film. That’s why the movie was so ripe for this stage adaptation.”
The Broadway production upped the budget, with lines of kicking showgirls and extravagant set pieces, but Carroll has stripped all that back. “I genuinely believe it serves the show better and made it come to life,” he says of the show’s original Sydney run. “At the Hayes you have very tight budgets and small casts, so I spend a long time thinking about shows that will benefit from that rather than be restricted by it. Calamity Jane was the first one I really got right on that count – it just came to life in a way the show never had with a larger cast and band. And Spamalot did exactly the same. When you get it right, it’s an absolute joy.” Like Calamity Jane, Carroll’s production of Spamalot offers the chance for audience members to be seated on the stage (“You’ll kick yourself if you don’t book onstage seating” he says), and wherever they’re seated, audience members can find themselves being a part of the action – “but always in a loving, positive, inclusive way!”
The other major element Carroll and his team (including choreographer Cameron Mitchell, designer Emma Vine and lighting designer Katie Sfetkidis) have re-imagined is the diversity (or lack of it) in the original source material. “The Pythons came up at a very different time. They were anti-establishment and revolutionary, but they were all Oxbridge-educated white men,” says Carroll. “The joy of Python is that it appeals to audiences across all boundaries of gender, nationality, and race, and so that’s what we wanted to put up on the stage to tell this version of the story.” This meant cross-gender casting the roles of Sir Bedevere and Patsy with female actors (yes, as fans will remember from the movie, ‘Patsy’ was originally a male role!), and foregrounding actors from racially diverse backgrounds. “Cramer Cain, who plays King Arthur in our production, is originally from Nauru – and we cast him because he’s just a brilliant actor and the perfect ‘straight man’ in the show. He inhabits the strength and power of Arthur effortlessly and has this air of nobility even when he’s skipping across the stage pretending to be on a horse, or arguing with someone about how coconuts might have ended up in medieval England – which of course makes it all doubly hilarious.”
The production will inevitably be expanded from the version audiences saw at the Hayes in 2019 (at least those lucky enough to get a ticket), but Carroll says it will be no less up-close-and-personal. “The production is anarchic, it’s immersive – it’s a really, really fun night out, and that’s because of the actors, the ideas, and the show itself,” says Carroll. “Oh, and I must mention that ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ is in the show too! It’s a fabulous sing-and-whistle-along number with the whole audience. Who can resist that?”
Monty Python’s Spamalot plays at
Canberra Theatre Centre 26 February – 1 March
HOTA Gold Coast 5 – 7 March
Riverside Theatres Parramatta 19 – 22 March
The Art House Wyong 26 – 28 March
Arts Centre Melbourne 29 April – 9 May 2020.
For more information visit www.spamalotoz.com