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You wanna shoot a president? David Campbell takes on a provocative musical role

Debbie Zhou

David Campbell has never played a role like John Wilkes Booth – the American actor who assassinated president Abraham Lincoln. Campbell started his career playing the ‘boy next door’ type before moving into leading roles that drew on his affable personality – music icons Johnny O’Keefe in Shout! and Bobby Darin in Dream Lover: “No one had ever cast me as the ‘character’ before. Booth is charismatic, flamboyant, a Southerner; he can spit out his words – but that turns malevolent very quickly.”

Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins is coming to the Sydney Opera House next month after an acclaimed season at the Hayes Theatre. The show looks at the killers and would-be killers of American presidents – digging into the motives behind their violent actions which had unsettling effects on the nation.

Campbell thinks there’s an inherent moral conflict that lies beneath the character of Booth and his fellow assassins which makes them appear reasonable, despite their disturbed personalities: “A lot of them come from abject poverty: they’re immigrants or the nation has turned their back on them. They have come from abuse from their families [or] they have been kicked out of their homes at 13.”

“The American Dream is both the great aspiration and the great fallacy of all time. But they are driven by it, and we can’t help to have tribalism and feel patriotic about where we live. So there is an ambiguity that sits at the heart of America that Assassins really plays on, and the assassins themselves are in the middle of.”

Assassins at Hayes Theatre
Photograph: Phil Erbacher

Set in a fairground shooting gallery, the new Australian production paints what Campbell describes as a “strange, mental Luna-Park limbo” with neon lights and Alicia Clements’ carnival set. But for Campbell, transforming into John Wilkes Booth takes more than immersing himself in this loopy design with a wig and moustache: “A lot of it comes with the voice. So he would talk a lot… from the lower jaw, which meant he almost had an under-bite which he would use as a growling sort of scenario. And I think I use his theatrical dynamics a lot,” he says.

And Campbell taps into Booth’s family history of Shakespearean actors: “I think [of him] as a Shakespearean actor. He knows how to be still and read somebody, and wait for them to be finished before he targets them with what they do. I think he would have carried an acquired dignity… ‘I’m a gentleman first, but I’m a patriot second’, or vice versa. So playing with the physicalities of that, it scarily comes very quickly.”

Although Assassins first premiered Off Broadway in 1990, this Australian production doesn’t ignore our current political climate. Against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s presidency, Australia audiences will no doubt feel the ramifications of contemporary international politics in this show. “It is such a tinder box for our production because it sparks people, and I think more than ever before. The last time it was done on Broadway was under Obama. So people would be like, ‘What a great production of history!’, whereas now people are like, ‘holy shit, these people are everywhere’,” Campbell says. “They have their own TV shows, they’re saying things on news channels, writing columns, going viral. And so with that being a part of the world we live in… this strange piece in the ‘90s that Sondheim has written is now so vital in today’s age.”

Assassins is at the Sydney Opera House from June 7 to July 1.

Looking for some more all-singing, all-dancing entertainment? Here's our guide to the best musicals in Sydney.

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