To steam or not to steam? The Australian Shakespeare Company’s summer season of Shakespeare’s Best Bits asks the all-important question.
The Australian Shakespeare Company have long strived to make theatre approachable, contemporary and accessible to the wider community. Each year, the talented ensemble put on a production in The Royal Botanical Gardens; a practice which has become a beloved icon and tradition. The atmospheric setting has played host to many whimsical plots and plays; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wind in the Willows being among favourites, however this year the usual production was replaced by a slapstick adaptation of various Shakespearian works. This alternative production is said to have pleased both the loyal theatre goers and a younger audience, so I went to check it out.
Whilst sitting in the shadow of the Melbourne Observatory, rugged up with sleeping bags and sipping on champagne, I expected the play to be similar to other Shakespearian performances; dialogue heavy, following an act-by-act structure and of course filled with tragedy. The players began a summarised version of Macbeth, using puppets to replicate the eerie characters of the three witches. Legend tells that when the play is performed, a real spell is cast as the dialogue is spoken, and admittedly, amongst the stage fog and sound effects, I did get frightened when I saw swarms of bats flying above. At first I thought the bats were part of the show, but then I realised it was nature playing prop-master. The atmosphere of being in the before enchanting garden suddenly turned spooky. What followed broke all of my predispositions. I knew it wasn’t going to be a traditional play when the actor playing Banquo came on stage in nothing but an apron and matching g-string.
What followed was two hours of quick quips and gags, pop culture references, musical renditions, outrageous costumes and of course a cameo from myself as I was called upon for “audience participation”. The show had everybody in fits of laughter, from teenagers to faithful theatre going seniors as a revamped “Masterchef” version of Hamlet asked the all important question; “To steam or not to steam?”. A rap version of King Lear greeted act two, followed by ballet, interpretive dance and Romeo and Juliet performed through a silhouetted screen (which as you can imagine, was ripe with visual sexual innuendoes).
The players used the small stage to their advantage by experimenting with levels and use of space in and around the audience and on the set itself. Suddenly someone would rise up from the floor, or appear on top of the facade. A blink of an eye and a mariachi band would appear, or a numerous amount of ridiculous props that the actors would often throw dramatically into the audience or into the actual gardens, in which case I wish them luck in relocating them.
The ASC’s production of Shakespeare’s Best Bits was an enjoyable experience, perfectly paced, atmospheric, funny and a quirky alteration on the tradition of Shakespeare In the Park that achieves in attracting both a contemporary and older audience.