For its 21st season performing under the stars at the Botanical gardens, The Australian Shakespeare Company invites us to enter a world of magical mayhem.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its magical misunderstandings and play-within-a-play, provides the perfect canvas for director Glenn Elston’s idiosyncratic Australian and contemporary references. Elston’s production turns Shakespeare’s classic tangled love story into a twisted romantic comedy complete with its own soundtrack of contemporary love songs. My personal favourite was the inclusion of Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’ by Anthony Rive as cross-dressing Francis Flute in the play-within-a-play. A freestyle rap battle for Helena’s love between the entranced Demetrius (Rive) and Lysander (Andrew Bongiorno), with references to MC Hammer’s ‘I Like Big Butts’, was another crowd-pleaser.
The high-voltage electric energy of each and every performer was infectious. There was an unbroken trickle of giggling, laughing, and snorting throughout the audience for the duration of the performance. I had a big dorky grin slapped across my face for most of the night but, like most everyone else, could not have cared less because I was really enjoying myself.
The best word to describe the performance, and Elston’s direction, is simply – fun. Elston revels in the bawdiness and gaudiness of Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote for his audiences, the language and stories are classic, timeless, and accessible. Sadly, the study of Shakespeare at school often tends to scare many people off. Elston’s success is that he continues to shake up Shakespeare, shaking off any notion that Shakespeare is stale or impenetrable. He creates a fine balance between revealing the poetry of Shakespeare’s language and making the story accessible for a contemporary Australian audience.
The performers, too, revel in the fun of Shakespeare and the freedom allowed under Elston’s direction. As Helena, Terri Brabon was outstanding, creating a nerdy Helena inspired by one of my all-time favourite movie characters, Mary Katherine Gallagher from ‘Superstar’. Even though only a small handful of the audience seemed to get the references to this little-known cult film, we all laughed loudly at Brabon’s characterisation of a lovesick dag.
As Nick Bottom, Brendan O’Connor stole the show with his fearlessness, enjoying the bottom jokes and puns just as much as the audience. The extended encore of his character’s death in the play-within-a-play, filled with more bawdiness than can be described in words, was totally silly, ridiculous, over-the-top, and completely hilarious.
The performance of the-play-within-the-play was the highlight and climax of the show, providing more entertainment and interest in half an hour than the actual play. However, Elston’s fine balance was at times tipped into complete and utter farce without much Shakespeare substance, with the fairy sequences and connecting bits and pieces of Shakespeare’s story often seeming out of place and unnecessary in amongst the stream of contemporary cultural in-jokes.
But I don’t think Shakespeare would mind. The hum throughout the audience was one of satisfaction and complete and utter enjoyment of the mayhem unfolding on the stage – a much celebrated 21st birthday party for The Australian Shakespeare Company.
Australian Shakespeare Company presents
A Midsummer Night's Dream
by William Shakespeare
Venue: Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne | Enter via the Observatory Gate on Birdwood Avenue
Dates: 21 Dec 2009 - 13 March 2010
Times: Tues - Sun @ 8.30pm until end of January (no show 26 Jan) | Tues - Sat @ 8pm through February till end of season | Sun 14 February Valentine’s Day @ 8pm.
Tickets: $40 / $35 /$25
Bookings: 1300 122 344 www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au | Ticketmaster 136 100 www.ticketmaster.com.au