Sly Rat Theatre Co. is set to bring the magical fantasy of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the banks of the Maribyrnong River this February.

Staging an event of this size is huge, but it’s been a long-time dream for director Alan Chambers whose unbridled enthusiasm for the project matches his equally unbridled passion for Shakespeare – a match made in, well, Fairyland, of course.

For Chambers, the genesis of the project came out of the simple and purely personal desire of seeking out the most pleasurable activity to do over summer. To that end, he found himself literally thinking about what would be his ideal summer in Melbourne: and deciding that he wanted to be outside, in the sunshine, next to the river, listening to Shakespeare, eating a sausage sizzle in shorts and singlet, surrounded by cheerful, buzzing audiences, the seeds for the project took hold.

“In keeping with the momentum Sly Rat Theatre had gained over 2015, I thought it prudent to create a new Shakespeare on the river event and take advantage of the largely underused location next to Pipe Makers Park to start a tradition for the western suburbs, Chambers explains. “I love Shakespeare, it is a joy to perform and open to all sorts of fantastic interpretations. It has been a big part of my training and development as a practitioner (I played Puck in my first Nida production) and something I am always delighted to return to. I love the rhythms, the eloquence, the depth, the characters and the passion of his words. This project is something of an indulgence for me, an opportunity to work on some of the greatest writing of all time and help introduce Shakespeare to a new generation of theatre goers.”

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Chambers, and fellow co-director of Sly Rat Theatre, Andy Harmsen, feel this event will be a joyful and satisfying one for not only the creatives but – and more importantly – the community. It is the hope that this inaugural event begins a long term relationship between the works of Shakespeare and the community of the West and beyond.

The company already has plans to mount The Tempest for 2017. Says Chambers: “It’s another one full of magic, a little darker and gutsy as hell.” The goal for the project, and company, at this stage is to build community support for an ongoing yearly tradition alongside the Maribyrnong River. “Hopefully ten years will see it become a regular outing for audiences to enjoy and young theatre makers to cut their teeth on” says Chambers. “It’s about nourishing the cultural life of our community, which I see as my privilege and responsibility as an Australian theatre maker.”

Chambers’ hope is to bring the community together for a magical night of free wholesome fun (the event is free). It is Chambers’ opinion that the arts having been withering somewhat in the western suburbs. “There seems to be nothing of this sort available to people who can’t travel to the botanical gardens each year and fork out over a hundred dollars for tickets for the family, ” states Chambers. “It’s important that young people are exposed to the beauty and freshness of live performance and Shakespeare can be enjoyed by all ages. It should feel inclusive and celebratory. A special treat to enjoy amidst the beautiful surrounds.”

SLY RAT MACBETHChambers and, playwright, Harmsen understood the need to adapt the original work for a contemporary audience. Harmsen’s script promises to keep the story moving at a breakneck pace, allowing room for some added theatrical spectacle and keeping the whole thing tight. Their idea is to keep the story sharp, edgy and accessible thus avoiding, for them, the loftiness and pomp that is sometimes (unfairly) associated with Shakespeare.

“Sly Rats like bold, exciting theatre,” states Chambers. “Expect lots of gags and a fair share of innuendo. We’ve also switched some of the characters genders and created a more queer inclusive story in keeping with modern times. We are still in development design-wise but young audiences will hopefully be familiar with some of the disney-esque archetypes and fantastical ideas we plan to reference. We’ve had some leg extensions made for Puck so that he will tower over the other performers. We’re going full faun! It will also be very cinematic – as all of our productions tend to be.”

Sly Rat Theatre have built a reputation for delivering edgy and often controversial theatre. One company mission statement initiates the making of theatre that provokes dialogue and discussion in a volatile way. This project may or may not fit squarely into that description but Chambers’ love for Shakespeare is palpable and, perhaps, that is enough to provoke and encourage significant discourse which, let’s face it, has been the role of Shakespeare’s works in secondary schools and universities all around the world for many, many decades.

“Shakespeare is a big part of the English language and the most influential playwright of all time,” says Chambers. “He is currently the most successful screenwriter having had over 525 adaptations of his plays made into film. Not bad for a dude from the 16th century! I could go on and on about his significance but I feel it has been much better articulated and thoroughly investigated by more qualified people than me. I think he’s ace and his stories still speak to people. There are basic universal human truths that his work encapsulates more succinctly, more beautifully than… just about anything.”

Attendance is free and festivities begin at 5.30 with free face painting for kids. The event is suitable for all ages with Sly Rat Theatre encouraging VCE students studying the works of William Shakespeare to attend. Hot Food and beverages are available for purchase and the event is Smoke Free.

Chambers says: “Bring the kids, grandparents, a picnic, enjoy the sunset, and strap yourself in for an enchanting night of love, magic and intoxicating theatre. Also – we have a big f**king faun!”

February 19,20,21,25,26,27 at 6.30PM
The Living Museum of the West
Pipemaker’s Park Maribyrnong
Gordon Street, Maribyrnong VIC 3032

Photo credit: Gary Tate