It's a glorious warm January evening in the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. On a long, solid-looking stage nestled among flowering eucalypts, the Shrine of Remembrance just visible in the background, Brendan O'Connor and Anthony Rive – in leather pants and jerkins – are madly grinning and mugging as they introduce the Australian Shakespeare Company's Romeo & Juliet.
Spread out before them on a remarkably lush lawn – remarkable given the recent weather – an audience of picnicking families and couples are grinning along with them. It's an idyllic venue for outdoor Shakespeare.
This is not an interpretation of the Bard's great love tragedy that will offer audiences any brave new insight, but Glenn Elston's well-trimmed adaptation is nonetheless intelligent, smoothly turned and tells the story in a snappy two and a half hours. The cast of 15 are enthusiastic, and though there are quite a few garbled lines and nonsensical emphases, they carry on with good-natured humour and a democratic spirit.
It lacks art, no doubt, but makes up for it with dedication. All of 18 years old, Madeline Field as Juliet is not entirely confident with the verse or the larger gestures native to Shakepearean tragedy, but she has clearly thought deeply on the feeling and significance of her part and is, in the main, a pleasure to watch. Jamieson Caldwell is less endearing and perhaps leans too much on a faintly louche charm, but by the time he meets his true apothecary he has found his passion.
The stage is well designed for the long, undulating lawn, lending a festive atmosphere to the venue. As sunset fadeth in the west, powerful lights bring the whole thing up in a gaudy gold and silver. Right across the stage, which must be 30 metres end-to-end, the players are always well lit. A real highlight is also Paul Norton's musical direction.
Perhaps the tragedy of the evening is undercooked, but as a cheerful celebration of the excitement and enchantment of first love, what Proust calls the thing too big for us to altogether contain within ourselves, it's a fine evening of entertainment.