Auckland Shakespeare in the Park 2023
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- Antony and Cleopatra
Reviewed by Malcolm Calder
Sir John Falstaff (Jordan Henare) in Merry Wives of Windsor
Photo: Matthew Diesch
Outdoor performances can be traced back to a Greek tradition. However they acquired a religious significance over time, and were often a featured part of church services, particularly at Easter, and aimed fairly and squarely at a largely illiterate congregations. Although religious ceremony and celebration continues to play a part in Europe today, by the 14th century outdoor plays in England had become divorced from the church. They covered a broad range of subjects and were frequently performed by craft guilds in outdoor spaces. These frequently took place as wooden carts moved around the streets, drawing an audience as they went along, before coming to rest at an arranged site particularly at inn yards or enclosed courtyards. Indeed actors often relaxed and rested between shows on the village green – hence the term Green Room that is still in use today.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that a throwback to outdoor performances started to gain popularity – initially in England but also in the US – largely driven by women actors and managers. Instead of building a forest on stage, actors were now able to move amongst real trees. Instead of an image of a lake, actors paddled in real water.
In New Zealand this throwback was slow arriving and we leapt almost immediately to indoor spaces. Driven largely by the British colonial military presence and subsequently by an influx of gold diggers, our early theatres were mainly small rooms, pubs and the like. The throwback didn’t start until well into the 20th century and outdoor summer seasons are now almost de rigeur with the works of Shakespeare figuring prominently – largely because his work forms a significant part of our language and theatrical heritage, but also because they are widely known and many are scripted around outdoor settings. There are now thriving summer seasons in several different parts of the country, largely the work of community-based groups. One such group is Auckland’s Shoreside Theatre which performs at the cosy little outdoor ampitheatre behind the Pumphouse Theatre next to the lake at Takapuna. This summer season usually embraces two Shakespeare plays and in 2023 they are tackling Antony and Cleopatra and The Merry Wives of Windsor. These alternate over a 4-week season that extends well into February (see dates below).
For any actors, Shakespeare presents a huge challenge – even more so for amateurs who frequently experience difficulty with the rhythms inherent in Shakespeare’s words, with the timing required in his comedy and with the necessity of clearly articulating every single line so the audience does not get lost. As a result typical community-based productions run the gamut from the mediocre to the outstanding. Shoreside’s two offerings almost reach both extremes.
Merry Wives is the most purely farcical and chaotic of all of Shakespeare’s plays. The ‘meaning’ cannot be separated from the ‘performance. Director James Bell could easily have followed a recent trend of updating and contemporising the setting, but wisely sticks with the tried and true.
Because Merry Wives is a farce it is hugely reliant on lightning-quick timing, carefully controlled over-characterisation and tightly choreographed movement. The chemistry between principals was clearly evident on opening night. There is an easy flow and much of its bumbling over-characterisation is very, very funny. Apart from a couple of minor technical hitches, Director Bell and his well-drilled cast all know their stuff. This production certainly worked for me.
The lynchpin is of course Falstaff. I don’t know Jordan Henare. Have never met him and have never seen him onstage before. But he is every inch the bumbling, salacious buffoon. In attempting to woo two wealthy women into helping him out of his financial troubles he makes both outrageous identical suggestions to both of them – rather like Tinder I suppose. But his efforts make Tinder seem like a Sunday School lesson. Forward is an understatement. Nor would his non-discriminatory, drunken and blatantly misogynistic approach to women in general work any better in a pub, club or even at the beach today. Just as some (hopefully a shrinking minority) continue to do so, his approaches are totally lacking in sensitivity or, some might say, sobriety. Wouldn’t work today. Didn’t work then.
And all because the women are lot smarter than he is and trip him up at every step. In fact he is so full of himself that at one point he is tricked into hiding in a basket of dirty laundry, at another to disguising himself as an ‘F.A.T’ old woman and most of the time he seems completely unembarrassed about being embarrassed.
But if Falstaff is the lynchpin, the strength of this play are its women. Āria Harrison-Sparke and Charlotte Heath are the besties who trip up Falstaff at every step (literally on occasion) while Steph Curtis (Mrs Page) and Terri Mellender (The Host) provide a mature strength that underpins and provides a solid authority for everything else.. Supporting them is the ever-reliable Bess Brookes whose performance as Miss Cleverly suggests she now owns the part.
The blokes are mere counterpoints in this Merry Wives and this is sustained by their being a more predictably bland bunch. Quite appropriately too. But they remain true and authentic with just the right amount of boorishness and cuckolding thrown in – this play wouldn’t work otherwise. Christopher Raven is worthy of mention as the faux Frenchman Dr Caiaus and Daniel Rundle handles Fenton/Brook well even tossing in a flash of tartan and an unexpected burst of ‘braid scots’ at one point.
However, the entire show is almost stolen by the truly captivating work of Heather Maday (Nym). And she has barely any lines at all. Nym was written for a boy, although in a neat reversal of Shakespearean tradition, Bell casts him using a girl-in-a-wig this time around. I kept willing her back on stage and couldn’t take my eyes off her when she was, afraid I might miss something.
In the end of course, this is a Shakesperean comedy after all. Page-the-younger marries her true-love Fenton, Falstaff slightly redeems himself before the fairies and elves and the spirit of the play is well summed up in Page-the-elder’s last lines:
Heaven give you many, many merry days!
Good husband, let us every one go home,
And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire;
Sir John and all.
Samantha Ellwood and Grae Burton in Antony and Cleopatra
Photo: Phil Botha
Unfortunately I can’t wax as lyrical about Shoreside’s other offering Antony and Cleopatra. The company is to be applauded for blooding a number of younger people and enabling them to explore first-hand the complexities and subtleties required required to make Shakespeare’s work succeed. I understand that a critical last-minute cast change also became necessary and that may have unsettled rhythms within the cast. But it didn’t help either.
Nonetheless Grae Burton gave us a larger than life Mark Antony, wrought with a coloniser’s imperial view of Egypt. But his chemistry with Samantha Ellwood (Cleopatra) was hardly captivating and mainly notable for its faux qualities and even absence. That may have been partly explained by a Cleopatra who was overly petulant, sulky and quite honestly just plain naggy at times. What Antony saw in her I’m not sure as she evoked few of the qualities of a powerful siren that the role requires.
The third key player, Rama Buisson (Octavius Caesar) explored an imperial aloofness that was slightly out of touch with the hoi polloi. Quite interesting I thought and, for me, it had slight traces of a young Prince (now King) Charles.
I also smiled each time Kutumi Refferts brought his idiosyncratic Agrippa out, although I wondered if the character he created was perhaps an escapee from Merry Wives.
However, a final word for the Production Manager. Somehow he managed to conjure the overhead arrival of the Police Chopper just as Antony was nearing the end of one of Mr Shakepeare’s longest-ever death scenes before finally carking it. The helicopter drowned out most of the dying Antony’s final words unfortunately but that didn’t matter as it seemed the timely aerial arrival was orchestrated to bear his spirit away to a sarcophagus atop the Skytower. At least that’s where the helicopter headed. Or maybe a pyramid somewhere.
Shortly thereafter, as Mr Shakespeare’s death count continued to mount, a possum ambled across the P-side battlements and then darted across the stage roof before stopping and hitting its mark right on an atmospherically lit and highly strategic part of the OP-side battlements. Then lo and behold, precisely when and Cleo got finally asp-ed and right on cue it gathered up HER spirit and ran away with it too – it seemed the possum was chasing the helicopter to Antony’s sarcophagus on the southside too. The timing was perfect for both!
Antony and Cleopatra – Jan 21,22, 26, 28, Feb 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 13, 14, 17.
The Merry Wives of Windsor – Jan 25, 27, 31, Feb 7, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 18