Theatre Review- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By Christian Tsoutsouvas
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “under the stars” at the Royal Botanical Gardens on a hot summer’s night in Melbourne: surely this is the best way to experience Shakespeare’s most fantastical comedy for the first time, as it was for me and also for those youngest members of the audience sitting with their parents on their picnic rugs. This is about as family-friendly as a Shakespeare play will get, at least when it’s still being performed in (almost) the original text, barring a few contemporary additions that are very welcome indeed.
Midsummer is the kind of tale that has become even more popular since it was first performed more than four centuries ago. Audiences are still endlessly amused by watching people unexpectedly couple up, cheat on each other, develop surprising infatuations and go on ridiculous journeys to find that one person they’re destined to be with (with or without the aid of a cheeky potion or spell). Of course there are deeper comments to be found on love, sexuality, gender politics and the like upon reflection, but just as it would have been 400 years ago, this production by The Australian Shakespeare Company is first and foremost a fun night out. The bard wasn’t exactly known for his tight editing skills: his plays were all gloriously indulgent. They were never written to be watched in total silence with undivided attention: the subplots, singalongs and comic diversions give you time to exchange comments, move around, eat, drink and enjoy each other’s company whilst still enjoying the show. In this production, it gives you a chance to enjoy your surroundings without losing track of the plot or missing any crucial character moments. The cast and creatives also take full advantage of the outdoor performance space as the fairies run, dance and bounce through the crowd and literally play with fire on stage.
It’s also great to see them make use of one of theatre’s greatest assets: it can get away with double- or even triple-casting actors in a way that film and TV rarely can. Casting, for instance, Madeleine Somers as both the third-wheeling Helena and a dim-witted amateur actor not only shows her range but also makes the cast feel like a true ensemble, like a close-knit theatre troupe who are as connected to each other as they are to their audiences. The combination of astutely delivered verse, breezy slapstick and some amazing acrobatics (especially by Benson Jack Anthony as Puck) easily crosses that treacherous language barrier that all Shakespeare productions have to contend with and really does make this a play for all ages.
The current season of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Under the Stars runs until March 3.
Photo credit: Nicole Cleary