****.5 STARS

By Sue-Anne Hess

Melbournians rejoice!  After a long and weary winter of lockdowns, pandemics and an alarming shortage of toilet paper, the summer sun is once again shining on our lovely city. Along with the return of barbeque’s, beach volleyball and (local) getaways, we welcome the return of an old, dear friend. Once more, Glenn Elston and the Australian Shakespeare Company present A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the Royal Botanic Gardens. This is an escape from reality, a fantastical forest frolic that reminds us it’s okay to laugh again, and that – with a little magic – everything works out in the end.

One of Shakespeare’s most beloved  plays, it’s hard to imagine that The Dream is more than 400 years old. In this comedy, four young lovers flee the rules and restrictions of hometown Athens and escape to the wilds of the woods. Here, they unwittingly step into the fairy realm where King Oberon and Queen Titania are quarrelling. Mischief abounds as mortals become playthings in the fairy battle, and lovers find one another under an enchanted moon.

The Gardens truly are the perfect location for outdoor theatre. The evening commences with a sunset picnic on the lawns, as parrots fly overhead and possums scamper about in nearby trees. The performance space is unassuming, with twelve symmetrical Greek columns set atop multi-level stage platforms. As twilight turns to dark, simple (but clever) lighting effects magically transform this ordinary stage into a bower of illusion and fantasy. All of the necessary ingredients are present for a night of romance, entertainment, and frivolity.

Enter the players.. Shakespeare’s timeless script floats effortlessly on the evening breeze, brought to life by the 15-member cast. Standout performers include Laurence Boxhall in his role as Lysander, who seems to have a natural sense of pace and timing. Similarly, Richard Piper’s Nick Bottom is exceptionally entertaining and his “encore” death scene is something quite spectacular! However, one wonders if the reduced audience requirement for social distancing may have contributed somewhat to a subdued atmosphere, noting a few points where the text feels slightly rushed and flat.

Nonetheless it is comforting to slip under Shakespeare’s spell once again, to let go of worldly worries, and to simply allow ourselves to be merry. This is what the Australian Shakespeare Company does best. Yes, the more critical amongst us may wonder at the nature of Oberon’s “fixation” with the changeling boy, and the usage of “magical flowers” to illicit a love response. We may also question the rationale behind the “donkey” transformation and the tyranny of arranged marriage (or death). But don’t think too hard. Have some wine. Have a laugh. We’ve earned it.

If we shadows have offended, Think but this and all is mended, That you have but slumber’d here While these visions did appear – Puck