A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the signature play of the Australian Shakespeare Company, which has been taking The Bard into Melbourne’s great outdoors since 1987. There is surely no more familiar, COVID-safe way for the city to ease back into theatre, and escape reality with a liberal sprinkle of fairy magic and an even bigger offering of broad comedy.

A Midsummer Night's DreamAustralian Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo courtesy of Australian Shakespeare Company

A forest romp in which feuding fairies, mismatched lovers and some very amateur actors are muddled by a love potion, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was entertainment for the masses 400 years ago. This production is unapologetic about making it 21st-century accessible – for children, those who don’t frequent the theatre, or aren’t entirely comfortable with Shakespeare’s archaic language. The play is trimmed to the bare essential two hours (plus interval). Snippets of contemporary English are scattered throughout, which will further irk Shakespeare purists but undoubtedly eases understanding and raises some easy laughs. The actors throw themselves into drawing out the text’s meaning with vocal and physical emphasis, often shamelessly hamming up the comedy.

All this works well in the pursuit of accessible entertainment – until the end when Pyramus and Thisbe, the rude mechanicals’ farcical play within the play, is extended with a comic death scene. Up until this point, Richard Piper is a delight as Nick Bottom, deadpanning as the attention-seeking amateur actor, and not overplaying the character’s bewilderment when transformed into an ass and doted on by fairy queen Titania. Giving Melbourne Theatre Company regular Piper more time to shine is understandable, though further cutting Shakespeare’s text to make room for Pyramus’ pantomime death is questionable – especially as it’s much longer than it is funny.

A Midsummer Night's DreamAustralian Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo courtesy of Australian Shakespeare Company

Alison Whyte, who has Helpmann, Green Room and Logie awards to her name, is the other actor of note. She plays both Hippolyta and Titania with regal assurance; clear diction and poetic cadence are particularly pleasurable aspects of her performance. Also doing significant double duties are: Hugh Sexton, tall and confident as the rulers of Athens and the fairy kingdom, Theseus and Oberon; Tony Rive, who brings an appealing reserve to Demetrius and especially Tom Snout’s interpretation of a wall in Pyramus and Thisbe; and Laurence Boxhall, playing charmer Lysander and Francis Flute, the reluctant Thisbe in drag, to the hilt.

Syd Brisbane does a minor double act as Egeus and Snug – whose lion performance includes a sight gag that leverages modern pop culture to hilarious effect. Anna Burgess’ tall, sporty yet sweet Helena is nicely done, while Fletcher O’Leary’s athletic somersaults and lithe movements makes him a standout as Puck. His performance has substance as well as style, however – which is especially welcome when the fairy sprite’s atmospheric epilogue brings back some of the magic that slowly drains away during the elongated Pyramus and Thisbe.

A Midsummer Night's DreamAustralian Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo courtesy of Australian Shakespeare Company

Costume highlights include Titania’s layered, leafy green silk and glittering headdress, and Hermia’s gauzy, Grecian-inspired dress with Athena-like helmet, quiver and bow. The minimalist set also looks to Greece: atop the stepped stage is a cluster of Ionic columns, whose built-in LEDs generate colourful, swirling visuals during moments of fairy magic. While the ethereal chimes and trippy sound effects heard during these moments are sometimes heavy handed, the sound quality in this outdoor space is excellent. This Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t aimed at Shakespeare scholars or devotees of cerebral theatre – for everyone else it’s a fun escape.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, until January 24

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