Much (Ado) merriment

Much Ado About Nothing (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 10 – 11

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When the show starts well before the play begins with comic duo Constables Dogberry (Mckeira Cumming) and Verges (Cleo Taylor) leading the audience in Mexican wave and beach ball game to the sounds of Daddy Yankee’s ‘Gasolina’, it is clear that with this “Much Ado About Nothing” we are in for a good time. The vaudevillian clowning from the ockerish couple is the perfect preamble to the Queensland Youth Shakes Fest celebration of the works of William Shakespeare and share of their contemporary take of one of the Bard’s classic comedies.

“Much Ado About Nothing” tells the tale of returning war heroes and their fortunes and misfortunes in love. Decorated veteran Claudio returns to Messina and soon sets to woo host Don Pedro’s daughter, Hero. They are engaged to be married, but in the short period between the proposal and the wedding many misunderstandings and misleadings occur. The most prominent of these is the wedding party’s secret attempts to inspire passion between the quarrelling Benedick and Beatrice. From here one would hope for a double marriage ceremony but Shakespeare is rarely so simple.

The proverbially titled comedy is an excellent choice for this year’s production. It is easy to follow and gives opportunity for a large cast involvement. And this “Much Ado About Nothing” is certainly a crowd pleaser as it plays up the fun through song, dance and heaps of humour. Although this is an abridged version, the production retains all the wit and emotion of the original script. With a strong ensemble, clever direction and an effective design, it is fresh, exciting and impressive.

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Chelsea Dawson and Callum Ford are equally excellent as the modern, mature ‘rom-com’ sparing partners, Beatrice and Benedick, last to know they are in love, although perhaps more convincing as their individual characters than as part of the couple. Fittingly for the text-driven comedy, their delivery of the Shakespearan dialogue is eloquent and poetic, despite being mostly of insults, and together than provide an apt contrast to the more conventional courtship of Claudio (Charles Platt) and Hero (Megan Dale). Plus, their comic timing is highly entertaining.

Ford is particularly versatile, taking Benedick from roguish joker in his distain towards love to commitment in choice of love over friendship, so that we absolutely believe in the better version of himself that he becomes. Similarly, Dawson’s ability to portray Beatrice’s defensive wit alongside her genuinely heartfelt scenes such as in share of her sadness about never finding the right man, make her performance memorable in all of its moments. Also of note is Harlee Timms’s perfectly-pitched performance, as the nefarious Don John, the manipulative bastard half-brother of Don Pedro (Liam Wigney). His powerful portrayal of the trouble-making villain gives the audience a needed thought-provoking glimpse at the play’s sometimes darker themes.

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With staging full of bright colours and summer costumes, it takes the audience longer than usual to transition to the text’s darker later tones, despite the deliberateness of Director Johnny Balbuziente’s decisions to signpost character transitions as the plot progresses from silliness to seriousness (although unnecessary and easy-laugh stereotypes do not help).

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Delivered by some of Queensland’s brightest young actors, dancers and musicians, this is a most accessible Shakespeare. And to have put the work together to such a high standard in a matter of days is an amazing feat. The knockabout passion of the creative cohort energises the text and the manner in which the entire cast plays off the audience adds another level to an already fast-paced and funny piece of entertainment, showing that Shakespeare can still be as merriful as ever.

Abridged ambitions

Macbeth (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 13 – 14

Shakespeare’s most famous political tragedy, aka The Scottish Play dramatises the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power, with urging from his wife and the consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. It is one of the darkest and most complex of the Bard’s journeys with some of his most infamous characters.

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To select it for the 2017 Queensland Shakespeare Production is certainly ambitious, given that the cast (of 2016 Queensland Youth Shakespeare Festival competitors) and creatives had only six days to rehearse, block, choreograph, design and tech the work. But from the moment the show begins with Kuda Mapeza’s melodic caution that ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, it is clear that the imaginative multi-arts exploration of the text is going to be an engaging one.

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This is an abridged version of the epic tragedy, cut down to just 75 minutes, yet still featuring all the key scenes and lines. Yet scene changes are almost imperceptible in their flow of actors, who enter from all parts of the performance space (even underneath its raised catwalks), never breaking the rhythm of the play.

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The physical theatre of its ensemble work is impressive, sitting well with its snippets of song and dance. Still, the production remains true to the violence of the savage drama and its fight scenes (choreographed by Johnny Balbuziente) are all impressive in creation of the illusion of physical combat. And there is even appearance of Shakespeare’s trademark witty innuendo in the porter scene, with Mitchell De Zwart not overplaying the bawdiness of the drunken gate-keeper’s exaggerated complaints and bawdy observations.

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Under the direction of Nelle Lee (along with Alexander Butt and Amy Ingram), Shakespeare’s language sits well in the mouths of cast members, evident particularly in the witches’ combined foreshadowing chants. Mathew Bengston gives a solid performance in the monumental role of the Scottish warrior poised at the point of possibility.

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As the ruthless Lady Macbeth, Evelina Singh is excellent. Indeed, her ‘milk of human kindness’ speech is a show highlight as she at-once conveys anger, confusion and despair along with her articulated ambivalence of gendered activity. Although the couple’s central relationship is not particularly gripping, however, this is perhaps a fault of the abridgement.

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The production’s aesthetics are impressive. A moody soundscape (from designer JP Vizcay Wilson) supports the shaping of Macbeth’s ambition in terms of the supernatural and the superstitious. And costumes offer interesting symbolism with players appearing in dark colours of contrast to the ensemble of witches, all dressed in white. While not the demotic secret black and midnight hags of Shakespeare’s imagining, the dishevelled coven convey an elemental force that is visually arresting in its grip of Macbeth as they intertwine about the stage.

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In the creative hands of a company with reputation for excellence in re-imagining the canon, like the previous Queensland Shakespeare Festival productions, “Macbeth” succeeds in bringing the Bard alive for contemporary audiences. It not only highlights the universality and ongoing relevance of Shakespeare’s themes but shows how, even in his darkest plays, there is still room for productions to make their own mark.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

Forest foils and fairies

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 21 – 22

It is often said that the lighthearted “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is Shakespeare’s most humorous play, which makes it a fitting choice for a youth production such as that of the 2015 Qld Youth Shakes Fest finalists. The multi-arts romantic comedy, which features 35 of the state’s creative youth, follows an abridged account of the rendezvous of four young lovers and a group of actors and their interactions with forest fairies and a duke and duchess. With a story also featuring a fairy king and queen, star-crossed lovers, wood sprites and, of course, the half-donkey Bottom, it is a fantastic ensemble piece so well suited to the context.

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The young performers all show a command of the text and skill in the demanding roles. Although there is little character development in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and no true protagonist, Meg Fraser leads the group as disobedient daughter Hermia, exhibiting captivating control of a gamut of emotions. As her frienemy Helena, Sarina Bakker is, by contrast, gleefully manic in her feisty and fanatical unrequited passion for Demetrius (Bryson Morris-McGuire), with much of the production’s initial humour coming from her chase of him and his response to her mania.

Although characterisation sometimes slips in the stereotypes courtesy of its modernisation, performers all convey a passion that will hopeful develop in subtlety as their stage presence is crafted. And while the scene where couples fight over who loves who, under the spell of mischievous fairy Puck’s misplaced love potion drags a little, it is a perfect vehicle to showcase the performers’ physicality.

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Beyond just the appearance of anarchy, hilarity comes from many places, including the requisite Shakespearean play-within-a-play story of Pyramus and Thisbe that occupies much of the final act. The bumbling, melodramatic satire not only gives the play a joyful conclusion, but offers opportunity to showcase some wonderful comic timing from a meek lion finally given chance to roar and a very funny wall… not just any wall, but the kind of wall that has a little hole in it through which the lovers whisper in secret. It is the type of comedy easily able to be appreciated by Bard newbies without intimate knowledge of the show’s sometimes complicated, interconnected narratives.

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In response to Shakespeare’s vivid, poetic evocation of setting, the production, which was created in just under a week, uses a somewhat simple but impressive installation of 1.3km of perfect paper chain to add texture and depth to Cameron Goerg’s lighting design (kind of like the chain backdrop used in David Tennant’s “Richard II” at London’s Barbican Theatre).

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Accompanied by a dynamic soundscape and some melancholic moments of live music and song, this allows for smooth transition through the moods of the forest’s magic and morning dawn contrasts. And simple and inventive props are punctuated by clever little touches of detail, like foolish Bottom’s (Gerick Leota Thomsen) ‘bad ass’ cap.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies and at the hands of director Ross Balbuziente, this production resonates in celebration of this appeal. Crafted with humour, inventiveness and flair, it is a pleasure-filled interpretation of a centuries-old work that can clearly still be accessible and exciting.

Such stuff as dreams are made on

The Tempest (shake & stir theatre company)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

January 20 – January 21

Shake & stir theatre company has created a lively adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s final works in a whirlwind “The Tempest” that condenses the Bard’s five acts into a digestible running time of under 90 minutes. Of course, some characters and themes of the original are sacrificed, however, there is enough skill and artistry on display to ensure that the show still feels satisfying. This is quite the achievement, considering that the production is showcasing the talent of the top 30 competitors from the Inaugural Queensland Youth Shakespeare Festival.

“The Tempest” is one of the final plays William Shakespeare ever wrote, which brings additional meaning to wizard Prospero’s audience farewell upon relinquishing his magic powers. And shake & stir’s Matt Walsh’s performance as Prospero is one of the strongest points of the production. Well-meaning, rather than bitter, he is more father than wizard, which suites the modern touches that punctuate this interpretation. Indeed, his throw-away parent lament of “teenagers” speaks volumes as to the universality of Shakespeare’s enduring themes. And to see a predominantly youthful audience empathetically engaged by Miranda (India Oswin)’s teenage angst reminds of the excitement of Shakespeare’s insight into humanity and the beauty of mankind. For, as Miranda herself notes, “how beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

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This is a trademark shake & stir show with modern mentions of Bieber, Twilight and even a Campbell Newman jibe peppering the performance and an early intertexual nod to Othello. The on-stage band, too, adds to the freshness of the production, however, the loud music and effects of the thunderous opening storm scene makes it difficult to hear all of the ensemble dialogue. Magic is created through simple means, allowing the spirits (four Ariels, who work wonderfully together), monsters, lovers and fools on stage every opportunity to reveal in the fantastical story of Prospero’s plot to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place.

The comic interactions of King’s jester Trinculo and drunken steward Stephano add to the boisterousness of the production. While Liam Soden’s drunken steward is, at times, a staggering, slurring caricature, Lachlan Sutherland gives a consistent, committed performance in understanding that any Shakespearean jester should be realised in gesture and facial expression, as much as in speech. When it comes to words, however, as Miranda’s wooer Ferdinand, Ryan Hodson’s dialogue is delivered with an aplomb that does justice to the poetry of the Bard’s words.

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Bathed in Jason Glenwright’s ethereal lighting hues of green and blue, the stage is a spectacle of dreamlike quality, enticing the audience into contemplation of the play’s most famous pronunciation that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” …dreams realised, perhaps in the escape of the theatre and the experience of differing interpretations of seminal shows such as this.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans