Anthea Gerrie enjoys the ultimate woodland play as theatre returns to Kew Gardens.
Kew Gardens is incredibly good at trees – not just at preserving and showing off the huge, magnificent specimens which are the pride of botanical Britain but also their potential for theatre. So, the return of Theatre on Kew after a two-year hiatus with the ultimate woodland play is a highlight of London’s summer season.
It would be impossible to imagine a more enchanting experience than enjoying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that perennial seasonal delight already well-peppered by Shakespeare with fairy dust, on the spot-lit stage of Kew’s Performance Lawn. Always enriched by the experience of being viewed outdoors, the Bard’s comedy takes on a new dimension when his star-crossed lovers and mischievous fairies get to cavort in an actual mini forest, bringing a new dimension to the play by making the set itself an extra character cast by nature.
While the Australian Shakespeare Company, who have brought an incredibly fresh, dynamic and modern take to a 400-year-old play whose key lines many of us know by heart, may seem an unlikely bed partner for Theatre On Kew, they are in fact the most obvious, with their 30-year-old history of outdoor performance and homegrown partnerships with Kew’s counterparts, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne and Sydney. But this is the first summer in their six-year contract they’ve staged Shakespeare at Kew, and what a performance it is, bringing world-class acrobatics and more than a touch of cabaret to the mix while staying true to the script.
Star casts are not a feature of Theatre On Kew and credits are minimal, but actor/dancer/choreographer and ace acrobat Fletcher O’Leary, who plays Puck, is surely destined for the West End, given he currently lives in London. It’s worth the price of a ticket just to enjoy him leaping on and off the stage, turning faultless somersaults and getting down and dirty with the punk fairies indulging in some off-duty twerking after putting Titania to sleep. No surprise to learn from his cv that he spent last year starring in Footloose on a cruise ship. Happily, like the rest of the Australian Shakespeare Company, O’Leary can do a classic English accent, so no Strine in this production to strike a potential discord with Shakespeare purists.
Cabaret, actually written into this play by the Bard via his Rude Mechanicals, is headed up hilariously by Mohsen Ghaffari, playing Bottom in the style of Sacha Baron Cohen, whom he strongly resembles. He steals every scene in which he appears, although for this spectator the only fault in artistic director Glenn Elston’s otherwise inspired production was giving his play-within-a-play character Piramus a protracted death scene never written by Shakespeare.
While the children in the audience seemed as engaged and enthralled as their parents with the goings-on of street-savvy, dynamic fairies, for very young ones there is also a matinee series of Wind in the Willows running concurrently. Clunky pantomime with none of the nuanced elegance of the Shakespeare, it is nevertheless a production for which the ASC is famous, although parents will have to be prepared to schlep to a fairly far-flung lakeside site for the first half, then pick up rugs, picnic baskets and children to stroll across the park for the second act. Still, as Shakespeare said, “all the world’s a stage”, and that goes for Kew, whose glades, meadows and mossy banks are put to use every summer to show that the inherent theatre of our Royal Botanic Gardens is about so much more than exotic flowers and flamboyant Victorian greenhouses.
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