A Picnic with Shakespeare

Apologies dear readers, I meant to post this piece weeks ago, but mislaid the draft. At least it is an almost current event when compared to many of my recent mediaeval travel stories!

Romeo & Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee, 1884.

Last night (early March!) we lugged an inordinately heavy, but much beloved picnic basket up into the Adelaide Hills, to celebrate the return of outdoor theatre to our new world rule of limitations. It was a warm day that rapidly cooled when the sun set, but we had remembered coats and rugs, thank goodness, and had only to feel sorry for the actors in their somewhat sparse, summery costumes.

As I sit in an almost empty airport, masked and not-so-dangerous, glasses steaming up as I type, it’s laughable to think about last night, and the number of people squeezed together on the lawn at Deviation Road Winery, eating their sandwiches and drinking their pink bubbles, waiting with almost tangible excitement for one of the best productions of Romeo & Juliet I have ever seen. (And I’ve seen a few.)

Shakespeare’s original cast list included at least twenty speaking parts and another handful of marginal characters. Last night, Essential Theatre told the old tale in a fresh and exciting new way with a cast of eight players, many of them doubling up, and/or changing the sex of the original characters: a male Nursey; a female Mercutio, a female friar. It was brilliantly done, with humour and a lightness of hand that looked effortless, but doubtless took weeks of hard work to make it flow so seamlessly.

Of course, the setting was glorious, as we settled among the vines and gum trees, our picnic table laden with chicken, various salads and a birthday cake we had smuggled in for my unsuspecting mother.  We ordered a bottle of Deviation Road’s pink bubbles (aka Altaire Brut Rosé) which we drank from pewter goblets, feeling most Shakespearean. Before the performance began, we managed to surreptitiously light the candles and sing to the birthday girl, much to her embarrassment, although I don’t think anyone else turned a hair.

And then it was ‘on with the show.’

This version of the notorious tragedy of the star-crossed lovers unearthed a lot more humour than many of us had ever suspected lay hidden under the covers of Shakespeare’s teenage romance. Directed superbly by Alister Smith, every actor deserves a special mention for a brilliant performance. Alex Aldrich was excellent as Juliet’s brassy, determined mother – comparable to Jane Austen’s single-minded Mrs. Bennett. Helen Hopkins swung effortlessly between the sharp-edged Lady Montague and the softly spoken, rather Bohemian friar. The nurse was played as a camp, decidedly ditsy and thoroughly delightful nanny by Adelaide original, Lachlan Martin. Madelaine Nunn as Mercutio was a joy: a brazen, bumptious character who rarely drew breath and added a huge dose of comedy to an otherwise tragic tale. Joshua Monahan as Romeo’s sensible sidekick Benvolio and the somewhat starchy Paris was remarkably sympathetic in both roles, and Rashidi Edward, who played Tybalt and the Apothecary might have had limited air time, but was nonetheless a notable performer. Eddie Orton as the volatile, somewhat fickle Romeo, clearly portrayed the awkwardness of the adolescent lover, overwhelmed by hormones and emotions, taking risks without thinking through the consequences. But the star of the show was undoubtedly the gorgeous Juliet, played exuberantly by Mia Landgren, who may be several years older than her character, but who totally captured the giggly teenage girl revelling in the emotional joy and excitement of first love. Gone was the deep intensity of so many favoured Juliets, instead we see a young girl ablaze with love and almost floating on air.

While still keeping true to the original 17th century drama, there were plenty of modern touches, that simply highlighted what we already knew: Shakespeare’s tales are timeless, saying more about the condition of mankind than about a particular historical era. Mobile phones, a polo match instead of a sword fight, a pair of ‘Desperate Housewives’ (aka the Ladies Capulet and Montague) squabbling among the vines of Verona, illustrated the modern day relevance of feuding households better than any Kardashian melodrama. The production was pacy, and the immediacy of the actors performing at our feet immersed us all in the atmosphere. I quickly became a willing extra rather than a spectator.

The added delight of an outdoor performance come from those unscripted moments that take even the actors by surprise. An unexpected shower, a flurry of wind to whip off a hat – or in this case, a kangaroo who chose to interject with a brief cameo appearance, hopping across the back of the stage to the delight of any who noticed. Later, a couple of ducks circled ostentatiously over the audience, while a kookaburra hooted with laughter at one of Mercutio’s stunts. It was an absolutely joy-filled evening.

*With thanks to Google images for a copy of the wonderful 19th century oil painting.

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