There is a particular joy to seeing Shakespeare performed in parks. The open air and surrounding greenery make far more sense for the forest settings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream than black curtains and stage lighting. With the Royal Botanic Gardens as backdrop, the Australian Shakespeare Company’s latest production of the classic tale of forbidden love and fairy royalty immediately gains a sense of magic. With fairy ticket-takers, picnic blankets for lolling on and very reasonably priced bottles of wine available at the bar (you can also BYO food and drink), the atmosphere is whimsical and lighthearted.
Helena loves Demetrius. Demetrius no longer loves Helena, instead lusting after the beautiful Hermia, who is happily in love with Lysander, who loves her in return. In an effort to avoid her father’s wrath, and an unwanted marriage to Demetrius, Hermia flees with Lysander to the forest. Demetrius and Helena follow, of course. There, unbeknownst to them, they are swept up in a row between Titania and Oberon, queen and king of the fairies.
The cast (Benson Jack Anthony, Ash Flanders, Anna Burgess, Kevin Hopkins, James Biasetto, Lizzie Brennan and Madeleine Somers) do a rapid-fire, near seamless job of scene transitions, costume changes and character switches. Somers, who plays Helena, captures the playful spirit of the production, tugging at that difficult line between modernisation and tradition to hilarious ends.The physicality of each of the performers, often framed by starkly coloured lighting and boisterous music, adds to the liveliness of the evening, and at times produces genuine gasps of glee from the audience. Glenn Elston’s clever direction draws out more laughs through small touches, a line repeated, a beat well-timed, particularly as the four lovers flounder with the results of Puck’s interference.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps one of the best loved of Shakespeare’s plays in Australia, thanks in no small part to The Popular Mechanicals, the 1990s play by Keith Robinson that endeared audiences further to the bubbling, working class Athenian theatre troupe. Here, the ‘mechanicals’ (also known as the players) are as slapstick and charming as ever. It’s hard not to wince with laughter and sympathy as Titania fawns over the transformed Bottom, or as Snug the Joiner earnestly explains he is not actually a lion.
The Australian Shakespeare Company have crafted a unique, gentle introduction to the magic of Shakespeare. If you have a friend, child or fairy in your life you’ve been meaning to introduce to the Bard, there isn’t a much better way to enjoy this play than under the stars, among the trees.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on at the Royal Botanic Gardens from now until 3 March. Tickets are available via the Australian Shakespeare Company’s website.