Meet the Bohemians: Simon Burke

By Catherine Lambert |

As a statesman of Australian theatre, Simon Burke has enjoyed a rich, varied, and illustrious career so far but credits the role of Harold Zidler as the pinnacle.

In fact, he sees Moulin Rouge! The Musical as a statement for his life as an artist, and most artists for that matter.

“I honestly feel that everything I’ve done so far has led to this role and I do feel that every single role – big, small, bad, successful, unsuccessful – that you do prepares you for the next one,’’ Burke says.

“It’s such a personification of what we do – the struggle, the naughtiness, the fun, the grit, the bawdiness.’’

With a career that started when he was a gifted child actor at the age of 12, he made his mark very quickly, winning an AFI Best Actor award a year later for his role in Fred Schepisi’s acclaimed feature film The Devil’s Playground, reprising the role many years later in 2014 for a mini-series version.

Burke has always turned his hand seamlessly between screen and stage, performing in some of the greatest musical theatre roles whether on the West End as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera or playing alongside Dame Judi Dench in A Little Night Music at the National. At home, he was the original Marius in Les Misérables and a perfect Billy Flynn in the most acclaimed 1999 Australian production of Chicago.

He can flip from being a polished showman, a fun host on Play School to a dramatic actor in popular TV series such as The Alice. As Zidler, his stage presence is on full throttle, and is the character who holds the show together being the thread of continuity between the bohemian life onstage and offstage.

He is drawn to roles that allow him to express his range in both acting and singing. Zidler, as the owner and host of the Moulin Rouge, offers great scope to explore the dark desperation for struggling, bohemian artists of Belle Epoque Paris, surviving on the favour of the privileged few. All with that naughty edge of mischief Burke relishes so well.

“Because I was an actor first on film and TV, before I got into musicals, my strength is my depth as an actor, so I always try to find the darkness in a role and never shirk away from any moment, allowing myself to not be liked,’’ he says.

“I plant all the seeds as Zidler – being an outrageous, fun, jolly uncle figure on one hand but there are also moments where he’s vicious and is really pimping Satine. There are lots of high stake moments like that because the Moulin Rouge is in trouble and it’s desperate times.’’

The spectacle of the show may be captivating and enticing but Burke takes great enjoyment in playing with his character and helping the story to unfold. He loves a spectacle and sparkle as much as anyone but will always seek out the underbelly for meaning, tenderness and depth.

“I love experimenting with the extremes of the character and how camp and outrageous he is but also, how realistic, how vulnerable, and truthful,’’ he says.

“That’s what makes it such an exciting role. I don’t chip off those edges because that’s exactly the way that human beings are.

“Zidler gives me a lot of band width with those things. It isn’t easy to do this role, but I know that I can do it and I do it every night in a slightly different way. I never change lines and use the same words every night to introduce the team but I can honestly say I’ve never done it the same way.

“I could do this show for five years and still manage to make it exciting and different every night. The challenge of a doing a long running show is to make it sound like you’ve never said those words before but it’s really no challenge for me at all.

“I also think it’s great for the whole team when I mix it up a bit. ‘’

When he was just a fledgling actor, he took great encouragement and support from more senior actors. In turn, he now takes great pleasure in mentoring younger cast members in the show and is much admired in the industry for being something of a leader and voice of support for his wider acting community.

“I’m a great believer in mentorship – formal and informal – because there can never be enough of it,’’ he says.

“That’s how our industry works, through generosity and kindness. In this show, I muck up quite a lot offstage, make lots of jokes and laugh my head off. I enjoy myself but also, that shared humour is a way of keeping the family we have happy.’’