Shakespeare in the park is a different kind of theatre. It's one that has its own traditions, its own attractions, its own risks and even its own audience. It is theatre which is always aiming towards something that is part carnival and part excursion, a theatre informed by the ceremonial romance of the picnic.
Glenn Elston's Australian Shakespeare Company are true to this sociable ambition, and, for the most part, this new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a lively frolic, inventive, full of movement and colour, pacey and well-polished, but offering plenty of carnival spirit.
For the first three acts it is great entertainment; but the final act is problematic. Within sight of the finishing line, they suddenly trip headlong into embarrassing bad taste. It's like having the picnic ruined by a slurring uncle who insists on telling that joke about the hooker and the donkey, causing alert mothers to clamp hands on the ears of any minor within reach.
To be sure, it's a play with a strong erotic theme, a pagan fantasy of love games and blind lust. Hermia loves Lysander, but her father insists she marry Demetrius. Helena loves Demetrius, but he refuses her for Hermia. Lost in an enchanted wood, these four love-fraught young Athenians are made the sport of fairy sprites, who rearrange their tangled desires by way of potions and transformation. Meanwhile, in the same wood, six hapless amateur thespians have also lost their way. And neither are they spared by the supernatural pranksters. It is a play in which boundaries are crossed.
Here, the world of metamorphosis and mischief is evoked in jaw-dropping acrobatics, lush costumes and a sort of Orientalist cabaret, a beguiling mix of sideshow circus and elaborately decked musical. The text is well handled and, although given the broadest treatment, retains much of its lyrical sheen. Elston's solutions seem very neat and a contemporary romantic comedy is easily conjured. The young cast is led by strong performances from Arky Elston as Puck, a babyfaced gremlin, and Shireen Morris as a bold Titania, the Fairy Queen.
So it's magic, twilight, summer and the botanic gardens: weather permitting, this is almost the perfect seduction. The freshening breeze sweeps up the stage smoke in dreamy coils, while lurid spotlights paint the surrounding canopy. In the east, a goblin moon, big and green, rises through the clouds. But as the bewildered Athenians emerge from the forest and from under the spell of Oberon the Fairy King, the final act, set in Athens, is a different challenge.
As if to compensate for the comparative drabness of these scenes, in which the amateur players – or "rude mechanicals" – perform their botched play for the Duke of Athens, Elston transforms The Dream into a crude farce. A shorter leash is needed on the improvisations – rude indeed – that ensue. Of course you don't want a chaste charade, but neither do you want a priapic pantomime with the caseous flavour of lewd birthday cards. In short, I'm not sure that Nick Bottom throwing the audience a giant dick with the smirking instruction to "share it among yourselves" is really in the right spirit for what is ostensibly a family show, albeit a show full of allusion and winking.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is the original Shakespeare in the park, first played in a courtyard opening onto the spacious gardens of an English manor, probably in 1595, as one of the entertainments at a sprawling wedding feast. It is also the play with which Elston launched his career in outdoor Shakespeare twenty-five years ago. For at least three acts his experience shines through in a wonderfully polished spectacle; such a shame then to have the finale misfire so crudely at the last.