Want beautiful surrounds, funny antics and clever wit? Check out Australian Shakespeare Company’s latest offering on at the Botanical Gardens until mid March. Artistic Director Glenn Elston has developed a fine reputation for bringing Shakespeare to the masses in enjoyable and creative ways and his new revamped work Shakespeare’s Best Bits certainly continues this excellent comical trend. Elston’s love for the Bard and its influence on modern society is very clear, but what makes this show work so remarkably well is that it appeals not just to connoisseurs of the Bard but also those dubious readers from high-school who ponder its relevance in our popular culture. This is a production to be enjoyed by couples, friends or families, both young and old, as was the audience mix the night I attended. Within the surrounds of the picturesque Botanical Gardens near the Observatory, deck chairs and blankets are populated by us, the test audience of the Mechanical’s showcase, as this troupe prepares a routine fit for a Duke and Duchess.
Audience involvement is non-threatening and fun, witnessing the warm ups of the five man Mechanicals troupe under the careful eye of their director Peter Quince (played with aplomb by stalwart Kevin Hopkins whose later turns especially in the female roles were hilarious perfect). Company newcomer Mark Dickinson superbly delights in the role of Snug as a slightly offbeat, quirky contributor, whose literal constructions of hip and bum moves or spins create lots of funny little moments right from the onset. The fun fabrication of this troupe’s clash of egos creates many amusing episodes as they progress from hammed up stretches to very funny animal re-enactments. But it is the instantly recognisable fluidity and energy of this all male group of six that impresses, and never lets up; showcasing all their individual strengths as well as building upon their unified polished group chemistry that really makes the show zing by.
Once the audience have helped the actors chuck Peter Quince’s performance ideas out the window, we move full throttle from these warm-ups into re-creating many favourite comic and tragic plots from their Big Book of the Bard. However, no boring declarations of love and loss here; the modern twists abound, allowing for clever interplays of many well known heroes, villains and various plotlines. Hamlet Masterchef style created many fun opportunities of monologue twists, wooden spoon sword fighting and snappy physical movement (ably assisted by choreographer Sue Ellen Cox). Audience involvement revealed the shorthand summaries of Kings such as Richard and all the Henrys to side splitting effect and with intentional repetitive finesse. But it was the uproarious interpretation of tartan clad Scots in Macbeth that really stole the show in Act 1. This re-enactment came complete with puppet witches and balaclava assassin antics to the tune of Mission Impossible, as well as the appealing bawdy and gregarious comic talents of company newcomer Andrew Hondromatidis as Nick Bottom, who shone in so many roles throughout the night.
However, it is the second half that really lifts this show to another level as Shakespeare takes a “Gleeful” turn with a variety of musical interpretations of comedies and tragedies of the Tudor period (with extremely praiseworthy input from Musical Director Paul Norton). With the Duke and Duchess preferring Opera (or perhaps really Oprah?!) we rocket along at lightning pace through various tales starting with a classical ballet / interpretative dance mash up of Romeo and Juliet. Its inclusion of the shadow screen for the sex and death scenes was done with hysterical effect by talented company newcomer Scott Jackson as Tom Snout aka Romeo and the pythonesque styling of Anthony Rive as Francis Flute aka Juliet. King Lear’s tragic tale, woven into a catchy hip hop routine by Hondo and Hopkins, would have made Kanye West and Eminen proud parents. Othello as a four minute opera was a impressive delight and Mark Dickinson’s As You Like It racing commentary monologue garnered special audience applause for his skill of speed, clarity and comedy, and in such a surprisingly lower register than his Snug incarnation. The big finish of Antony and Cleopatra as a musical theatre feast allowed for everything – swords, harmonious song declarations, giant blow up asps, comical door and window entrance and exit scenarios, not to mention Hugh Sexton’s turn from Robin Starveling into Cleopatra which was a real highlight of the piece. The special inserted segments of Jackson’s Burt Bacharach homage styling of songs like If You Leave Me Now worked extremely well as fillers for what could have instead been dead stage time whilst preparations were being made for the next scene.
Elston’s witty writing makes it a thoroughly enjoyable evening of entertainment just as the Bard would have intended! In short, the show is fast and furiously fun. Nonstop humourous puns and physical enactments still allowed for moments of light and shade comic variance to shine through. Special mention must be made of Peter Amesbury and Chay Moran who must be run off their feet backstage given all the quick changes and prop requirements. Hats off also to Karla Erenbots whose creative costuming made each of the vignettes fully blossom in most hilarious fashion – so many options for tartan styling, lycra ballet one pieces, and a furry male string that won’t be forgotten quickly! Most of all, this improvisational, true ensemble piece is slick and fully engaging, and if slapstick belly laughs and clever antics are your thing then make sure you don’t miss it.