Actor Albert Mwangi is currently deep in Ensemble Theatre’s season of Mr Bailey’s Minder, but has taken some out to speak about the power and humanity of the piece.
A potent drama by beloved Australian writer Debra Oswald, Mr Bailey’s Minder was written in 2005 and won the Griffin award for best new Australian play. It is raw, tough, funny and multi layered with the latter drawing Mwangi’s immediate attention.
“The humanity and layered nature of this project is what drew me to it,” says Mwangi. “The characters feel so human and so flawed in their own individual ways that I couldn’t help but keep reading to the end when I first came in contact with the script.”
The play centres around Leo Bailey, one of Australia’s greatest living artists, whose genius battles to survive the effects of alcohol, cynicism and self-loathing, can no longer take care of himself. A touching redemption story the work also explores the price of fame and money. with Mwangi posing the question: What has Leo Bailey forfeited in his life to get to the level of artistry, fame and notoriety he’s at in the play?
Family and forgiveness play such a central role in this piece as well. “Family in the blood and non-blood related sense with Margo Bailey and Therese Lawrence respectively,” explains Mwangi. “Because of this, we’re able to see a great deal of healing/forgiveness with underlying friction that creates wounds elsewhere. I can only compare it to a human anatomy analogy where if you need to heal a muscle in your left leg and as a result use it less, your right could end up being overworked which creates an imbalance even after the left is healed.”
Mwangi explains that growth is also such a central part of what Oswald is saying so clearly. Growth doesn’t happen overnight, is never linear and is never easy.
Mwangi plays the dual roles of Gavin and Karl. Gavin is a British bloke who’s had a troubled background growing up in South East London (according to Mwangi, hehe). He has been burnt a few times in his attempt to be an artist and has come to Australia to look for greener pastures. He struggles to get his work seen but, in that time, sees Leo’s work and becomes a fan. He moves the story forward by highlighting Leo’s kryptonite, the booze, and also shows how big of an artist Leo is. “Gavin makes wrong decisions for sure but he’s just trying to get by and pursue an artistic dream as well. I do admire his charm.”
Karl is a carpenter and builder who is kind and observant. He comes from two loving parents who’ve taught him that kindness always wins (according to Mwangi again). He’s a lonely young man who does odd jobs and fixes things in a subconscious attempt to fix his past and life. He moves the story forward by just being there for people in their highs and lows. In fact, it is this big heart that Mwangi admires
New perspectives is also something Mwangi believes the character Karl brings. “His optimism and observant nature allow him to see both sides of the coin in every situation which make his presence a catalyst in this world.”
Mwangi acknowledges that there have been challenges in performing dual roles but these are as exciting as they are challenging
“The challenge is always differentiating the two characters organically and there-in also lies the excitement,” he says. “Especially two that appear in the play in such close proximity. The beauty is, Debra’s writing makes them distinct in how they hold themselves. Gavin completes his thoughts and is never cut off which hints at his confidence and how he holds space in the room. Karl is the opposite. He almost never completes his thoughts because he’s either interrupted or stops himself.”
From knowing this, Mwangi can then work on physicality which, he admits, is another challenge. “For these two characters, I used animal work to find their physicality’s which is super exciting. Hope you can guess what animals I chose. I’ll give you a hint, one’s a bird, one’s a canine.”
Mining the text for what other characters say about each of his characters is also an exciting challenge.” Basically, every challenge for me is exciting in this hahaha.”
The play stars theatre legend John Gaden and it is working with Gaden that Mwangi heralds as one of the highlights of his career. “He’s such a fun artist to be around and to watch work. I’d say I’ve learnt most about his playfulness and ability to let go as well as curiosity.
I genuinely think he switches his style and approach depending on the character he’s playing which is what makes him so interesting. That curiosity and playfulness could be inspired by anything from a prop in tech week, to a costume bit in early stages of rehearsals to a specific word in the table read. That curiosity and play he maintains despite having such a great career is what inspires me.”
Mwangi credits working with such a great team of people as his most joyful experience. “Everyone is so supportive and such kind humans,” he says. “The cast and crew are extremely good at their jobs and have made the rehearsal room a little haven for us all to explore and discover.
Another joyful experience has been having Debra Oswald in the room. It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced having the writer be in the room once in a while and it has been amazing.”
NIDA alumni, Mwangi loves playing characters who are polar opposites to who he is. “Not only is it challenging and exciting but it also enables me to create new neural pathways and learn new skills when it comes to their profession for example.”
He likes to tell stories that challenge the status quo or that leave audience members with questions. “Human beings are complex,” he says. “Stories that show these complexities in the most simple ways are what draw me. A good story has complexity in its simplicity.”
Bristling with sharp humour and beautiful complexities, Mr Bailey’s Minder is a bold reminder that underneath the brittle veneer, there are rich layers of human experience to unearth and discover.
Says Mwangi, “Come watch an intergenerational slice of life that may or may not answer your question on ‘What truly is the price of fame and forgiveness?'”
Mr Bailey’s Minder plays till September 2
Image: Prudence Upton