REVIEW: Sydney Shakespeare Festival | Bicentennial Park
This Sydney institution for Bard fans is a congenial hoot. The Much Ado About Nothing/As You Like It double is the sort of hammy theatre William would have loved.
It’s quite quickly become something of an institution. It’s only been going about half-a-dozen years, but it’s carved out a niche for itself in Sydney’s inner west, at Glebe’s Bicentennial Park, drawing solid crowds.
One wonders what the bard would make of it all, all this outdoor Shakespeare; in the park, by the sea, what-have-you. Methinks he’d heartily approve. After all, it’s all about democratisation. On two consecutive nights (one, the evening of the hottest day on record), we availed ourselves of two of Bill’s best: Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. The wonder of it is, the same cast performs the two plays. How they pull it off is beyond me. And with nary a hesitation, let alone boo-boo.
We could get into a very protracted and, God forbid, academic debate, but I posit that Shakespeare, played outdoors, in a mighty wind (strong enough to rip the cover from our umbrella in a single gust) and some rain, hot on the heels of Sydney’s hottest-ever day, needs to be of an almost entirely different shape to that performed in, say, the Sydney Opera House. In short, it needs to be “bigger”. More exaggerated. Ramped-up. Attention-getting. If I accept my own premise, then the SSF’s approach, under the direction of Julie Baz, its co-founder and artistic director, is right on the money. In fact, Baz herself exemplifies this. Not content with the challenges and vagaries, including climatic, of directing two plays (almost) at once, she features, as Beatrice (Much Ado) and Phoebe (As You Like It).
As Beatrice, Baz resists any temptation to veer towards a traditional, anglicised, highly-mannered style, declaiming instead in what one presumes is her own voice. Thus, Beatrice is rendered as the sharp-tongued, hard-to-get sheila ye olde Bill had, I reckon, firmly in mind. Dramatically, Beatrice, the wealthy Messina governor Leonato’s niece, is antonymous to Hero, his demure daughter. Baz gets this and delineates the characters accordingly.
In a sense, her turn as Phoebe is a fitting companion piece: there seems to be something of the same underlying inspiration for her character as for Beatrice. As evidence, I submit her monologue.
Think not I love him: though I ask for him,
‘Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well.
But what care I for words? Yet words do well
When he that speaks them pleases those that hear.
It is a pretty youth; not very pretty;
But sure he’s proud; and yet his pride becomes him.
There is something of the undecidedness in both about the object of their affections. Denial of their temptation. As if they’re above such mundanities. In short, Baz acquits herself very well.
While I think of it, Sarah de Jong’s original musical composition for the plays reveals her to be very au fait with the sentiment and qualities of Elizabethan music, which was, of course, so central to Shakespeare’s theatre (there are, allegedly, more than 500 references to to music in his collected works). Having de Jong (who’s penned scores for Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company and many others) on-board is something of a coup and her work certainly vivifies the experience. The PA struggles a little, however.
The festival would be worth the price of admission for the colourfully idiosyncratic performances of John Michael Burdon alone, as Benedick, Touchstone and Adam. He imbues each with as much eccentricity as he can muster and it works a treat. Sure, there’s the odd gesture that may engender a “WTF?!” and it can be a little overdone at times, but these tiny excesses are more than compensated. Baz has given him a lot of rope and, while he wields it wantonly, it never forms a noose.
If it wasn’t the very first, Much Ado must surely have been one of the earliest romcoms and the sparring, adversarial sexual tension between Benedick and Beatrice can probably still be observed to resonate all the way to Hollywood to day. It’s a merry war indeed and Burdon has a knack for feigning scorn, treading the difficult line between seeming to persuade his would-be lover, while betraying his real feelings, secretly, to us. Bravo!
As Touchstone, a professional jester for Frederick, the usurper of the legitimate dukedom, he really camps it up and, as Baz has seen fit to cast a very fruity male Audrey (Dominic McDonald, very reminiscent of John Hurt’s Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, for mine) as his bride. The monosexuality isn’t exactly unprecedented, I gather, but serves to augment the already strident homoerotic affectations of the play, albeit in the most innocuous, if spicy way. The cat-and-mouse game that peppers the play (As You Like It) is almost as cagey as the verbal chess match ‘tween B & B in Ado. It highlights an aspect of the play that’s typically, I’d suggest, rather overlooked. Designer, David Jeffrey, who’s provided an astonishing array of outfits for all and sundry, has eclipsed himself with the Carmen Miranda-style hat, whose surfeit of dangling grapes suffices as Shirley Temple locks. Very becoming. As the pretty pair, Burdon and McDonald are a veritable Fred and Ginger; maybe Desi & Lucy.
Vying with Burdon for outright honours is Emily Elise. She was almost born to play Rosalind, the fiercely independent, wilful, quick-thinking woman’s woman. The Ita Buttrose of her day, she regards every problem as an opportunity, so being cast out of the kingdom by her grasping uncle proves but a minor setback, given her resourceful nature. Again, somewhat like Beatrice (in Much Ado), she has an uneasy relationship with romantic love: philosophically, she’s suspicious and cynical; emotionally, susceptible. It seems to go to a view of or thesis on women Shakespeare is confiding in us. I’m sure many an academic essay has been written on it. In any case, Elise wears the role as well as Naomi Campbell wears haute couture. She makes, too, for a somewhat less naive Hero than many, perhaps, mistake Leonato’s prized daughter for, graduating her role in reinstating her maligned reputation with adeptly. And as Dogberry, chief of police, she bears uncanny resemblance to the glorified, trumped-up, bureaucratised plods of today, who command a language all their own. Across her assignments, there’s a soupcon, I fancy, of Dawn French about her, which proves a comedic sweetener.
As I recall two back-to-back evenings of roast chicken, not-so-crusty sourdough and Italian merlot, I’m also reminded of player after player that thoroughly surprised and delighted. Another is John Gomez Goodway. As the notorious drunkard, Borachio, for whom Hero’s lady-in-waiting, Margaret, must settle, he’s as convincing as a schoolie outside a Gold Coast nightclub. As self-afflicted martyr, Silvius, hopelessly devoted to the contemptuous & contemptible Phoebe, he’s a poor, pitiful country bumpkin; an Oshkosh, B’gosh! His agile versatility ensures he inhabits this role just as easily. He makes a respectable Friar, with a mind devious enough to plot Claudio’s comeuppance and, as Le Beau, one of Frederick’s courtiers, he’s more of a fool than Fred’s official one, Touchstone. And Goodway plays him for one, with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Ironically, Le Beau is the embodiment of Touchstone’s recounting of a saying, “the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.
David Jeffrey (co-producer of the SSF, alongside Baz) is Don John, in Much Ado, an irredeemable trouble-maker, who helps deceive Claudio into dismissing Hero as a faithless whore. Jeffrey doesn’t memorably bring off either Don John’s superficial nefariousness nor underlying complexity. Mind you, there isn’t a lot of room for such subtlety in this broad reading of the play. The pity of it is, Don John is, in many ways, one of the most vivid and well-realised of all Shakespeare’s characters, yet can all too easily be neglected. One can extrapolate much, given his unhappy formative years, about arsonists, terrorists and other attention-seekers. In As You Like It, he is efficacious as Sexton, a court reporter and Balthasar, and a self-confessed ill singer, who Benedick rather unkindly reviews: “An he had been a dog that should have howled thus, they would have hanged him.”
Caitlin Maruno, like most of her fellow actors, is of such clarion voice she easily surmounted the eerily Shakespearean tempest that blew on the first of our nights by Rozelle Bay. Fresh from studies at the Stella Adler’s acting studio in New York, she illuminated Margaret, Hero’s lady-in-waiting, prone to being mistaken for her mistress, given her penchant for donning Hero’s wardrobe. She gives herself away, however, with her lower-class bawdry. As Celia, in As You Like It, she is a model friend and cousin, a virtual sister, as the role clearly calls for, but Maruno takes it the extra mile, portraying the intensity of Celia’s devotional ardour as bordering on clinical.
The aforementioned Dominic McDonald is suitably dignified and sober (not always audible, but very distinguished, vocally) as the noble, Leonato (Hero’s father and Beatrice’s uncle), quietly compelling as the obstinately disconsolate fringe-dweller, Jaques, who absents himself from the rightful duke’s court in deference to a monastic existence and is favoured with what’s almost certainy the most famous monologue in Ado; an extravagant treat as Audrey.
Roger Adam Smith doesn’t seem as comfortable or natural in his Shakespearean shoes as some of his colleagues (there’s a more intrusive awareness of his acting, rather than his taking on the character) and his diction can be challenging, but his zeal is obvious and contagious. He is certainly ardent as Antonio, Leonato’s older brother (Beatrice’s father; Hero’s uncle); just as loyal as “deputy dawg” (constable Dogberry’s right arm and constant companion); as Duke Senior, banished by his conniving sibling to the forest, he wears his degradation heroically, but seems less than relieved or surprised when news comes of his restoration. His most entertaining turn is as the champion wrestler, Charles, compromised by Orlando in a David versus Goliath-style upset.
Brendon Taylor’s Don Pedro doesn’t quite capture his complexity, or his journey. After all, he starts of with quite some braggadocio, or at least a robust sense of self-belief, but, in becoming painfully aware of having been doubly deceived (firstly, by Hero’ supposed falsified infidelity and, secondly, by her faked death), he seems to lose his mojo. It’s a difficult character to bring off, at the best of times, let alone during a gale-force zephyr, so it’s really no indictment. As Oliver, Orlando’s brother, too, he could be more cold-blooded, given that, even while promising to release the inheritance owed his bro’, he’s scheming to do away with him. In playing straight man to Touchstone’s worldy wordplay, as Corin, the shepherd, however, he’s deft.
Jacob Thomas’ Claudio is, if anything, more likeable that he has a right to be, given his generally limp-wristed, weak-willed, insipid approach to life. This, because Thomas has a habit of making each and every role he plays sympathetic. So, here, we may regard him more as a blameless, hapless Peter Pan than a mere lazy disciple of Benedick. In As You Like It, just as there’s not much, or anything, to dislike in Orlando, there’s bugger all to disfavour in Thomas’ portrayal. He is everything that doth become an actor: Orlando is a beautifully-drawn character and Thomas’ discerns and outs all his charms and attributes.
I doubt there’s ever been a bigger ham sandwich than these two productions of these two plays. The SSF is a congenial hoot. If only Bill had been there to see it. Mind you, the weather, at least when we went along, was likely prohibitive of ruff, doublet and hose.
The details: The Sydney Shakespeare Festival — featuring Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It — performs at Bicentennial Park until February 24. Tickets on the festival website.