2016 marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare. A local contribution to the year of festivities is Shakespeare’s Best Bits by The Australian Shakespeare Company. Employing a variety of performance styles drawn from a range of historical eras, this is definitely not the Shakespeare you read at school. How much you appreciate this might depend on how keen you are for an evening of physicality and silliness.
Shakespeare’s Best Bits revolves around The Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There, these amateur Athenian actors put on Pyramus & Thisby for the wedding celebration of Duke Theseus. In this outing, the actors plan to overthrow the will of their director/dramaturg Peter Quince (a satirically self-absorbed turn by Kevin Hopkins) and consider some alternatives for which play they will perform. From blanket or lawn chair, viewers are the “test audience” for the evening, having some minor interaction with the players across the night.
With this setup, The Mechanicals proceed on a very physical tour of some of Shakespeare’s most famous works, attempting to find a play that will please a royal audience. There are plenty of pop-culture references, some of which would have been more snappy when the play was first performed in 2010-11 as A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Behind The Scenes.
It seems to take a long time to set up the premise, and the slapstick warm-up drama exercises generally aren’t as rewarding as the silliness integrated with story to come later. When we get down to the plays, a rapid-fire Macbeth is a riot of clashing tartans, puppet witches fortelling destiny, and a cheeky Nick Bottom (Andrew Hondromatidis) bringing a lot of his name to a hirsute Banquo, to obvious audience reaction. As players innovated with whatever props were at hand, Hopkins clearly relished the naked ambition of his Lady Macbeth.
Hamlet Master Chef of Denmark gets a similar speedy treatment, as culinary terms and utensils spiced up the original text. At this rolling boil, Shakespeare’s language is little more than a garnish to the slapstick, well performed as it was. I wonder if this is the drawback of pumping up the action too much, as those elements of tragedy that made these scenes part of Shakespeare’s best bits in the first place are pushed to the margins.
By interval, some could find the appeal of all the goofiness starting to fade, like the canker-worm’s ineffectual fire. However, on the second act — to steal another line from Hamlet, directed by the Prince to Ophelia — “…here’s metal more attractive.” It might also help to get into the mood to insist of your companion, as did the heroine in Antony and Cleopatra, “Bring me wine”.
The post-interval action takes a different tack as Glenn Elston’s writing abstracts the telling much further from the source material, avoiding competition with it. Also, his direction here avoids overplaying the jokes, creating a kaleidoscope of absurdity that was both much closer to the Monty Python-esque style promised and more engaging.
Formats employed in the second act included a Hip Hop routine to summarise King Lear, an opera of Othello, and a Romeo and Juliet ballet. The latter was energised by total commitment from all the players, with Tom Snout (Scott Jackson) and Francis Flute (Anthony Rive) showing that enthusiasm is more important for entertainment than technique. Antony and Cleopatra was set off with surprising props and Snug (Mark Dickson) and Robin Starveling (Hugh Sexton) showing themselves as versatile performers.
The visual appeal of the whole affair is a tribute to the efforts of the production team. The costume design of Karla Erenbots surfs the changing currents of the pieces, from suitably dignified royal robes to Shakespeare in spandex. The stage design allowed a scene to be spiked with an unexpected event, or a transformation to permit shadow play, heightening the fun.
While it possibly won’t suit the puritans, there’s a lot of novelty to enjoy in Shakespeare’s Best Bits. Shakespeare’s goal was to entertain the masses, and in that vein, Australian Shakespeare Company have created a very accessible piece, with colour, movement and music for all and elements Bardy and bawdy aimed at the elders.
It might even guide the sceptical to regard Shakespeare’s works as less a struggle with archaic English and more as an enduring wealth of vibrant stories and characters. Get there early to ensure a good seat (available for hire) and bring a picnic!
Shakespeare’s Best Bits
Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne (Enter through Observatory Gate on Birdwood Avenue)
Performance: Friday 8 January 2016 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 12 March 2016
Bookings: (03) 8676 7511 or online at: www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au
For more information, visit: www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au for details.
Image: Anthony Rive and Kevin Hopkins feature in Shakespeare’s Best Bits – photo by Ben Fon
Review: Jason Whyte