David Wenham, narrator, Karakorum: A Medieval Musical Journey

The incredible array of music from that period, from uplifting and spiritual music to some foreboding pieces of music as well, I think is the main thing audiences will be enraptured by ...

When it comes to Australian-born stars of stage and screen, few actors have done us more proud than David Wenham. Since winning our hearts as ‘Diver Dan’ Della Bosca in SeaChange, David Wenham has gone on to star in Hollywood blockbusters, home-grown hits and engrossing television sagas, but his latest role is something of a departure for the seasoned performer. Karakorum: A Medieval Musical Journey is a collaborative event that sees Australia’s Brandenburg Orchestra partner with French outfit La Camera delle Lacrime to tell the tale of Franciscan missionary and explorer William of Rubruck and his travels to the Mongol Empire. David Wenham will be narrating the performance, relaying excerpts from William’s diary as he navigates his way across Europe and Asia. Ahead of Karakorum’s arrival in Brisbane on Tuesday August 7, we caught up with David Wenham to discuss the performance, the lessons that can be gleaned from this important text and bringing history to life through music.

I’d love to know how the opportunity to narrate Karakorum: A Medieval Musical Journey first came about. When did the role present itself to you?
I received a request from Paul Dyer, who is the artistic director of the Brandenburg Orchestra. The request came through my agent with limited details as to what the performance would entail, so I agreed to have a coffee with Paul and he gave me the full rundown of what it was to be. It was to be a musical collaboration with the Brandenburg Orchestra and a fabulous French music group La Camera delle Lacrime who specialise in 12th, 13th and 14th-century music. That’s how it came about, and I was immediately sold on the concept of the show.

Amazing! It seems like this is a step away from the kind of work many would associate with you – being an actor of stage and screen, predominantly. What was it about this project that really hooked you?
Music, I think, is transformative. The idea to work with music is something that I will always leap at. I’ve worked on stage a few times with orchestras – accompanying them with spoken word – but I’ve never done something as left-of-field as this. The spoken word in this instance is essentially excerpts from a man’s diary – William of Rubruck – a Franciscan monk who went on the most extraordinary journey across the Silk Road in the 1200s. I was hooked and said yes immediately.

In terms of preparation for this role, did you have to acquaint yourself with the text and story intimately?
It was a relatively compressed period of time from when I said yes to when I began rehearsals and opened. I did attempt to read as much as I could about William of Rubruck – I also attempted to actually read his diary. There are versions of it on the Internet, and there’s one particular version that I began reading the introduction for. After I got up to about page 20 I wondered when it was going to get to the actual diary, so I scrolled forward and the introduction to that version was actually longer than the book that William had written! Eventually, I read to the book and, I’ve got to be honest, it wasn’t the easiest thing to read because it’s not chronological – he skips all over the shop. What he does have is an incredible eye for details, and that’s why it’s regarded as one of the great pieces of medieval literature. Over three years he got to describe everything he saw over that journey in incredible detail – whether it was what people wore, how people lived, the type of flora and fauna he saw along the way, or weather patterns in certain places. If you wanted to know what was happening on the Silk Road on any day in 1253, 1254 or 1255, you’d be able to find it in his diary.

During your reading, was there anything that struck you as a particularly interesting revelation about that time period?
The big thing for me was when I decided that I wanted to physically see on a map exactly what he did. Once again, I hopped on the old Internet and I saw it and I was amazed at the length of the journey that he took. I then looked up Marco Polo and compared his journey, and essentially Marco Polo did the same journey – although he ventured a little bit south – one hundred years later. Also, some of the things that William describes on his journey – and this was the first time in history things like this were written down, things like animals – like the yak, Marco Polo gets credit for coming across them for the first time. If you go to William’s diary, there was somebody who had encountered those creatures a hundred years before.

When it came time to rehearse, what were your first impressions of the sound assembled by the Brandenburg Orchestra and La Camera delle Lacrime?
They are pretty extraordinary sounds. The Brandenburg Orchestra brings ‘more conventional’ instruments to the party while the French group brings the likes of the erhu – a Mongolian two-stringed instrument that produces the most extraordinary music – and my favourite instrument on the stage, which is the hurdy-gurdy. I’ve got to be honest, I was completely ignorant of that instrument until I became involved in this. It’s the most amazing instrument – you basically turn a handle to get it going and up it whirs, but it’s actually a stringed instrument that produces the most fantastic sound.

In terms of the story that’s told and the parallels that can be drawn to today, what messages do you think people can extract from the tale?
I think one thing is the matter of religious tolerance. The piece climaxes in what was known as The Debate at Karakorum. When William reached the capitol of the Mongol empire, which was Karakorum at the time, the Mongol ruler – who was Genghis Khan’s grandson, a guy called Mongol Khan – put on this debate. William represented his religion, namely Christianity, and then all these other men represented other religions – Nestorian monks, there were Muslims there and Buddhists there. Each of them were trying to outdo the other – whoever could prove their beliefs were the greatest, Mongol Khan would give them the title of victor. Essentially what Mongol Khan said was that there may be one god, but there are many different pathways to that god, so all of them are valid. I think that’s obviously a pretty good message for today.

What do you personally hope audiences take away from the performance?
In my job is essentially as the narrator – I give a little bit of context as to where William is in the journey, and it goes chronologically and the audience gets an idea of where he is geographically and the feel of the place is like at the time. That gives reason for the music to then play. Basically, I just introduce all these fantastic pieces of music and let the audience ride on that wave. The incredible array of music from that period, from uplifting and spiritual music to some foreboding pieces of music as well, I think is the main thing audiences will be enraptured by.

What would you say was the biggest creative challenge for you in this role?
The biggest challenge – and I’ll let the cat out of the bag here – was that my first assumption was that I was going to be on stage reading from the diary, but just before rehearsal I was instructed to learn the whole text, which I have done. Thankfully, I have a pretty good short-term memory, but I don’t have a great long-term memory so soon it will all disappear. The next challenge was that I’m not musical, so just to work with the musicians for 90 minutes – to be aware of when I come in, when to stop and when to deliver other pieces – is technically pretty tricky.

At this stage in your career, what do you look for in roles to ensure creative fulfilment? Do you look for variety or roles that might offer a particular challenge?
I think variety is a key, but regardless of what it is – be it a piece on stage or television, film or even radio – it has to be something that engages me and makes me curious and challenges me, as well. This particular project absolutely fascinated me, and I’ve received a great deal of joy being on stage with this fantastic collection of musicians.

You’ve ticked off a number of varied roles in your career to date – is there any topic or character that you’d love to explore?
It’s difficult to say that there is one particular character, but there is one genre I’d want to engage more with, and that’s comedy. Essentially I think it’s my strongest suit, but it’s something that I don’t get to exercise as often as I’d like. That’s something I’d hopefully get the opportunity to engage with a little bit more over the next while. Hopefully!

Is there a particular role that follows you around in terms of fan interactions and what people recognise you from the most?
There’s obvious ones, I suppose – like Lord of the Rings and to a certain extent 300. But the one that does have legs, especially in Australia, is from a film that ironically didn’t do terribly well at the box office, but found a huge life afterwards – at first on VHS and then on DVD. That film is Gettin’ Square and my character called Johnny Spitieri. It would be difficult for me to go two days in a row without at least one person coming up to me and talking to me about that character. That’s many years ago now – it’s a surprise but also a delight to me because it’s one of my favourites.

Finally, I’d love to know where you are drawing a lot of inspiration from these days …
That’s a really interesting question. I think my inspiration changes sometimes daily and sometimes weekly. At the moment it is foremost musical – and that’s because of this medieval music piece. Strangely, the next thing I’ll do is another interaction with a musical group called the Sydney Art Quartet, and I’ll will be putting spoken word to their music. I’ll actually be reading from a few different books as they play music inspired by those particular pieces of literature. So, once again music is the thing getting my creative neurons firing at the moment.

Karakorum: A Medieval Musical Journey will be staged at QPAC on Tuesday August 7. You can purchase your tickets here


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