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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by on 4 August 2021

Down-Under Goes Up and Over

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by William Shakespeare, re-imagined by Glenn Elston

Australian Shakespeare Company, Theatre on Kew at Kew Gardens until 29th August

Review by Mark Aspen

I know a bank where the (wild) thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, and luscious woodbine, sweet musk-roses and eglantine; plus of course cowslips and love-in-idleness.  Of course, I know … in Kew Gardens; where else?   Oberon might have been lost with eucalyptus, mimosa, bottlebrush, or anigozanthos, known as kangaroo paws; but I’m sure they’re there in Kew Gardens too.   

These Australian plants might offer a welcome to Theatre on Kew, a touring group from the Australian Shakespeare Company, who are adding some down-under colour to open-air theatre throughout August.   Its rip-roaring A Midsummer Night’s Dream is must for this season, especially if you can bring along a child or a teenager or two.  This is a great fun introduction to Shakespeare.  A tiny tot near the front of the audience was laughing her little-self hoarse throughout all the (many) comic enhancements.

Glenn Elston, the ASC’s Artistic Director, has taken a lot of liberties with the Bard in his re-imagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s text is pared back a bit to make room for a lot of Aussie humour, which clearly chimes with the humour of the environs of Kew.  “Aussies are experts in not taking things too seriously”, we were reminded by Peter Amesbury, the show’s Production Manager.  The contemporary language additions often slip in seamlessly, are sometimes deliberately in contrast and occasionally are impertinent to the late-Tudor metre.  The late-Tudors would probably have loved its bawdiness and its sheer energy.

Almost all the cast double (and even triple) in their roles.  This can make some scenes sparse on characters as a choice has to be made.  Some minor parts disappear; there is no Robin Starveling the tailor, for instance.   There are, though, clear differentiations between the parts, a credit to the cast and also to the electric and varied costumes of Sydonie Paterson, the multi-tasking Costume Designer, who I suspect is also the dresser who helps to speed along those many quick changes. 

The other creative triumph is that of Peter Amesbury, the Lighting Designer, who, using his arrays of LED’s and gobos and moving spots, transforms the trees of Kew Gardens into the forest outside of Athens.  But, what a magical scenescape appears as twilight gives way to night! The large Scots pine behind the stage is decked in eerie colours and flecks of light that reach into what Oberon calls “the starry welkin” (actual a cloudy welkin on press night).

However, what makes this production exceptional is its exuberant energy.  This is outstandingly exemplified in Fletcher O’Leary’s Puck, which packs in megatons of dynamic physicality, his tumbling skills are displayed in a seemingly continuous run of astounding acrobatics.  O’Leary acting skills were honed as a child, playing Mickey Gannon in the Australian soap opera Neighbours, and these have stayed in his blood.

It is also Fletcher O’Leary who opens the show in the role of Philostrate, master of the revels to Duke Theseus of Athens.  To underline that it is Athens, Philostrate wears the uniform of an evzone, the presidential guard seen in the centre of the city.  Elston has given Philostrate an opening speech, enjoining the audience to obey the Covid rules and to not “tinkle in the bushes”.   The costume’s fustanella gives plenty of excuses to camp up the part. 

The evzones’ distinctive uniform has been worn for the past two hundred years, so fits in nicely in the undetermined time period. Hermia and Helena’s rah-rah skirts hint at the early eighties, Demetrius’ scout uniform is pure Baden-Powell, whilst Lysander’s three-piece suit is, well er … to call it flashy would be an understatement.

Much of the shenanigans occasioned by Oberon and Puck involves the two pairs of lovers, the eloping Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena.  The four nimble actors exploit all the opportunities for (suggestive) humour, especially when the boys are drugged with Oberon’s love-in-idleness.  Try a mixed-doubles sack race in a sleeping bag.    As the hyper-demonstrative Lysander, Cameron Essam never underplays the part.  Lewis Edridge’s Demetrius is a tad more sober.  Each though have their protestations of love, laced with sauce for the girls, but athletic punch-ups with each other.   Petite Grace Holroyd plays Hermia as vulnerable and put-upon, but sparkles with spirit when the chips are down.   Poor neglected Helena has an air of exasperated bewilderment, in a perky performance by  Larissa Teale.  The girls have a great line in cat-fighting.  And Hermia’s taunt of “you painted maypole” is countered by Helena calling her an “Oompa Loompa”.  Boys and girls, all bring an acrobatic synergy to the quartet.

At the top of the play, Duke Theseus and Hippolyta are looking forward to their forthcoming wedding and this gives the framework to the plot.  Kane Aspey and Monica Nash make a very stately pair as the nobles, dignified and distinguished.  However, they really make their mark as the dyadic monarchs, Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies.  The mischief-making is triggered by their bickering over the custody of a changeling boy whom Titania has taken under her wing in India.  Titania reminiscences to Indian music and dances with her attendants in Shiva-like patterns.  Nash’s gracious and charming Titania is quite a lady to be reckoned with and is more than a match for Aspey’s vexed King Oberon.  Aspey has a commanding stage presence and regal demeanour, notwithstanding Oberon’s fit of pique and his spiteful, but botched, attempt to remedy the situation by drugging Titania.  Aspey also forms the gymnastic duet with O’Leary’s Puck, supporting the acrobatics in a charged spark of physical theatre.

Titania’s fairy attendants form a frothy enchanting quartet of giggling gregariousness, lithe in their administrations to the Queen, but equally keen to sidle off to party.  They have musical interjections to a mixed bag of music, jazz, pop, rap, you name it.  Grace Holroyd and Larissa Teale double as Cobweb and Peaseblossom, as well as the feuding friends.  (Teale also plays Flame Fairy, Philostrate’s companion.)  Mustardseed and Moth (Sarah Parker and Ariana Gonzalez) complete the elfin quartet.    

Glenn Elston’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is designed to maximise the fun, and concomitantly broaden his audience, goals well achieved by foregrounding the Rude Mechanicals … and his five rustics are very rude Mechanicals.  We were forewarned that Elston’s production “leans into some of the cheeky and quite risqué moments of the text that others might ignore”.   We might be forearmed when the rustics shout encouragement to the most enthusiastic of the would-be thespians, “Give it a crack, Bottom”.

Gareth Kennerley plays the increasingly despairing Peter Quince, the carpenter, with bucolic bluster as he tries to muster his band of artisan actors, the archetypical stage director with warm-ups and “motivation; action!”.   Cameron Essam and Lewis Edridge double as Tom Snout, the tinker and Francis Flute, the bellows-mender.  Grace Holroyd returns yet again as Snug, the joiner; and Mohsen Ghaffari, whom we saw briefly at the beginning as the starchy patriarch Egeus, now appears as Nick Bottom, the weaver: now for something quite different!  The five rustics cram in as much pace and punch into their performance as is humanly possible and never miss the opportunity for a verbal or physical gag.  

At the end of the first half, we have seen Bottom translated into an ass.  As his colleagues flee in terror … in a slo-mo conga, Bottom dances to a guitar … Zorba’s dance, and is led into Titania’s boudoir-bower bathed in blue (!) light.

After an interval (an all-too short one; a quarter mile each way to avoid the “tinkle in the bushes” is a little demanding within the time for many of the audience), Philostrate is back doing his Master of the Revels bit with some audience participation.  He prepare us for his reading the proposed programme to the Duke, suggesting we might champion his performing “The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung by an Athenian eunuch to the harp”.   Rehearse cheers for Philostrate and chanting, “eu-nuch, eu-nuch”.  However, as per the Bard, Theseus is going for the rustics’ “very tragical mirth” of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Snout is cast as The Wall, and Essam plays up the risqué edge to Pyramus’ “show me thy chink”.  Flute draws the short straw as Thisbe.  “Thisbe” gets much ribbing and joshing from his fictional fellow actors, but Edridge gets even more ribbing and joshing from his factual fellow actors.  Grace Holroyd’s Snug counterintuitively gets the envied lion’s part, cue much soprano roaring and diminutive clawing, culminating in breaking though the heraldic crest painted on the rustics’ backdrop à la MGM.

Iranian actor Mohsen Ghaffari steals the show as Bottom, unashamedly playing to the gallery with a barrel-load of gusto.  Bottom’s child-like enthusiasm to be the star of the play within the play, using his beanie hat as a glove puppet for the lion’s maw; his fear turned to wonderment at Tatana’s attentions; and his always wanting to please, all came across clearly in Ghaffari’s vigorous performance.   It culminated in Bottom’s death of Pyramus, “Thus die I, thus, thus, thus … Now die, die, die, die, die” being taken up and over OTT.   He doesn’t fall on his sword, but rather minces himself on it, cutting off ears, nose, eyes, lips, arms, legs, in the nicest possible way you understand; this is a family show.  “What next?” he asks, prompting the audience to reuse their rehearsed, “eu-nuch, eu-nuch !”.   There is only so much one can do for art, so he disembowels himself!  Don’t worry though, it is all Theatre of Blood stuff, all tongue-in-cheek (whoops, no, he cut those out!). 

You have probably got the drift.  This is A Midsummer Night’s Dream played for fun, with a capital F.  All roles are acted big, big, and the cast enjoys themselves enormously.  There are gentle lyrical moments, but it is primarily a full-on knock-about.  

Shakespeare purists will wince, but hundreds of children will laugh and enjoy Shakespeare.  Dads will snigger at the double-entendres and Mums will swoon at the bare manly chests. . . . . Oh, and the Kew Gardens botanists will know where to find that bank with its thymus serpyllum, primula elatior, viola odorata etc. etc.

Mark Aspen, August 2021

Photography courtesy of Theatre on Kew

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