Every summer, without fail, I’d find myself quickly passing by the lights of Australian Shakespeare Company’s show at the Royal Botanical Gardens. I’d always think as I pass that I would love to go someday. Well, the other night I finally attended! I had the pleasure of seeing their current production, the light-hearted romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Glenn Elstron OAM with music direction by Paul Norton.
The Australian Shakespeare Company have pioneered outdoor theatre in Australia and with Much Ado About Nothing, they’ve taken William Shakespeare’s 423-year-old play and have added their own personal touch to it, complete with a modern spin and original compositions. Yes, it is still a play and is lovingly respectful to the original source, but it’s a play with songs.
This funny love story follows two potential couples in Messina, Italy; Claudio who is a Count from Florence and is in love with a fair maiden named Hero, the other is Benedick who is a quirky kind man with charming wit that cannot stand Hero’s cousin Beatrice (and vice-versa), an outspoken, sassy, and appealingly independent woman from a rival rock band. Naturally, chaos ensues. Love is discovered, love is lost, love is found again, and for the entire duration, it’s a damn good time watching this story unfold right before your eyes at the Royal Botanical Gardens beneath the stars.
While the cast of 15 do an excellent job bringing a reworked version of Shakespeare’s play to life, there were standouts. Despite the wrongdoings in the storyline (which you can find out the context by seeing the show), I loved Alex Cooper’s Claudio, simply because I believed him. I cared about his character, and I desperately wanted for him to be happy. I could say the same for Larissa Teale’s Hero, I just wanted to give her a hug. You know an actor is great when you’re hooked and feel like you’re right there in the chaos with them. Claudio’s support, Antipholus of Syracuse played by Hugh Sexton is Claudio’s support, guide, and brother-like figure. Despite appearing this way, Sexton was also funny and equally as lost as Claudio, which I adored.
Anna Burgess is fantastic as Beatrice. The way she captivates you while on stage is something I believe that is a natural gift for Burgess. I was delightfully surprised to discover that her vocals were also super impressive.
I also loved Nicolas Cameron’s Benedick, equipped with his cheeky smile and a guitar, there’s a lot to love about Cameron’s performance and I couldn’t help but smile whenever he took to the stage. However, when you combine Burgess and Cameron, they are magnetic and a such a wonderfully talented duo. I couldn’t help but giggle and gush at their characters’ special moments together, as did the rest of the audience. It was very sweet.
A show is nothing without it’s costuming, and Karla Erenbots has really outdone herself with the vibrant, colourful and fancy attire the cast are lucky to wear, to the point where I found myself completely envious over a blue velvet jacket that Benedick wears (who am I kidding, I still want it).
The true hero of the show however is the music with all original songs written by Paul Norton. Not only can all the cast sing, but majority can play instruments as well! I don’t think I’ve seen that many guitars on stage before! When they’re not reciting Shakespeare’s poetic words, the cast are singing, playing instruments, even dancing – line dancing of all things! There’s this catchy country bop with the same name as the play ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ that made me want to get up and dance. ‘Summer’s Day’ that is performed during a wedding scene is a gorgeous number, and ‘Heavily Heavily’ which is somewhat haunting but unmistakably beautiful.
Australian Shakespeare Company have really made this play their own, filled with fun and pop culture references, the amount of joy and passion that oozes into the audience when the cast take the stage (or run around it) is vivaciously delightful and joyfully infectious.
If you are keen to attend, there are two tiers available. There’s a premium admission that includes a pre-allocated seat at the front of the stage, a bottle of wine (your choice of red, white, or sparking), a hot drink during interval, and a program book (if you’re going as a pair, it’s one program book to share). If premium is not your kind of thing and you prefer picking your own seats, a general admission ticket is the best way to go as you can park wherever you want, bring a rug, bring your own chair, and if you forget your chair or don’t have one, you can always rent one for $5 from staff, and programs are available for $15 for all patrons.
Food wise there are drinks and snacks available at the bar but unfortunately there is no hot food available on site. I had the premium experience and I think it’s worth doing for a date night out, a night with the girls, your bestie, or even with a group of friends. It is a shame, since I would have loved some hot food so I could really experience a dinner and show under the stars. So, if you’re going, please be prepared! Plan ahead so you’re not left hungry, whether it be eating fully beforehand or packing some snacks!
It really was a lovely night, and truly my only criticism is that the original songs aren’t available on streaming services, nor are the song titles in the programme book – and they should be!
Overall, Seeing Much Ado About Nothing under the stars on a beautiful night at the Royal Botanical Gardens was truly a magical experience. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was reminded of my love for William Shakespeare’s work and my admiration and respect for Australian theatre. I don’t know why it took me so long to attend but this needs to become an annual thing not only for myself, but for everyone. If anything, seeing outdoor theatre in Melbourne should be a rite of passage for all Melbournians!
Australian Shakespeare Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing is now playing at The Southern Cross Lawn – Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, Melbourne Gardens until February 4.
For more information and ticketing, visit:
Photography by Ben Fon.