In late 2020, we couldn’t count on much whilst trying to find a “Covid normal”. However, since 1988, we’re able to trust that January will bring a programme of outdoor shows from Australian Shakespeare Company (ASC). As usual, the 2021 offerings include one of Shakespeare’s works – his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The plot is set in (judging from some costumes, not-so-ancient) Athens, around the time of the summer solstice, a period of spiritual significance for thousands of years.
Young men (Lysander (Laurence Boxhall) and Demetrius (Tony Rive)), and women (Helena (Anna Burgess) and Hermia (Madeleine Somers)), even royalty (Theseus (Hugh Sexton) and Hipolyta (Alison Whyte)), pursue the object of their affections. Some potential pairings would have to struggle against jealousy, disinterest, or competition.
Despite their magical powers, rulers of the fairy realm – Titania (Alison Whyte) and Oberon (Hugh Sexton) – have similar, self-imposed romantic challenges. Oberon’s pranks on Titania and the mortal world escalate into relationship chaos, showing the truth of Lysander’s remark: “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
My last look at an ASC production was 2016’s Shakespeare’s Best Bits, which added comic tweaks to a selection of scenes from the Bard’s plays. This Dream continues the company’s interest in splicing modern references into the action.
Unfortunately, a programme was not available before the show, or at the time of writing this. (“Because COVID.” explained one of the show’s attendants.) As such, we were denied the opportunity to read of Director and Designer Glenn Elston’s intentions for this season.
Some may feel that the innovations here don’t go far enough. Dream is performed quite frequently, and often productions seek to give audiences a new slant.
There were acrobatics from Oberon’s servant Puck (Fletcher O’Leary), some pop lyrics, a nod to “Bollywood”, and Alison Whyte throwing some shapes you wouldn’t have seen from her in memorable roles such as Olive in The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
Still, unless you were a big Dream fan, it might be difficult to find enthusiasm for the inessential subplot of the “rude mechanicals” performing their crude play at the royal wedding finale. A little iconoclastic fat trimming would likely turn a 2.5 hour outing into a punchier experience for all ages.
Still, there was a good deal to appreciate about this offering. Performances were enthusiastic, with Richard Piper’s Nick Bottom particularly embracing the production’s slapstick elements. Paul Norton’s music added a suitably supernatural tint to proceedings when necessary, and Andrew Nielsen’s talents ensured that the sound was better than a typical outdoor performance.
Karla Erenbot’s costuming looked (mostly) appropriately organic for woodland nymphs. And most importantly, this ensemble showed a much better grasp of how to deliver the Shakespearian language than many I’ve seen.
There’s a bar onsite and punters can hire low seats at the venue. Those keen on BYO can also bring a picnic to enjoy from their own chairs or blankets. Groups should aim to arrive together so they can sit together, in seating clusters appropriately distanced from others. Some will certainly appreciate this Dream after so many months starved of theatrical magic.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Southern Cross Lawn, Royal Botanic Gardens, 100 Birdwood Avenue, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 7 January 2021 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 24 January 2021
Information and Bookings: www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au
Image: Alison Whyte as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – photo courtesy of Australian Shakespeare Company
Review: Jason Whyte