Bella Vista Farm, December 17


Last year it was 30 degrees at Bella Vista for Sport for Jove’s As You Like It, with fruit bats winging the minor roles. This year, the 14th edition of the beacon Shakespeare company’s summer season, it was 12, minus windchill – and that was before it really started to blow, which was before it started to rain. But then outdoor theatre was always a challenge, which is why WS had to keep people engrossed on as many levels as possible.

Giles Gartrell-Mills and Bishanyia Vincent. Photos: Kate Williams.

Including magic. Now there’s an ephemeral quality. We had a whiff of it in STC’s current The Tempest, but here director Sean O’Shea has opted to prioritise comedy, and while the result is often hilarious, a little magic doesn’t go astray in the performance of this great play.

It’s a tribute to how funny the production is that we could laugh while our teeth were chattering. This was largely thanks to O’Shea’s rude mechanicals, especially in the play-within-the-play of Pyramus and Thisbe, rounding off the massed wedding celebrations at the end. In an inspired move, O’Shea has cast the considerable presence and voice of Bishanyia Vincent as Bottom, and while hers is a more knowing Bottom than some, no laugh was missed and a few were added, including via a red fright wig to accompany the ears when the weaver is changed into an ass.

Bottom and the fairies. Photos: Kate Williams.

Giles Gartrell-Mills’ Peter Quince is equally amusing: a kind of scout master turned theatre director, who lives and dies on the performances of his modest actors (which means he mostly dies), and, just to compound the amount of lusting going on in the wider play, he has a thing for Bottom. So, of course, do Titania (here gender-reversed, with Jake Speer in the role) and Thisbe (when Bottom is Pyramus), and Toby Blome’s Thisbe is funny enough to stop one’s teeth chattering altogether.

Helena has become Helenus, played by Rupert Bevan (who’s also a very funny Lion, with misbehaving false moustache). This switch is not gender-blind casting, but a conscious point by O’Shea that, with so much mating going on, some of it should reasonably be same-sex. And, while the young lovers are rather tediously chasing, groping and scuffling in the woods, the switch adds piquancy to many lines, including those between Helenus and childhood friend Hermia (an excellent Jade Fuda).

Jane Fuda. Photos: Kate Williams.

With Titania now a male, Oberon is played by Claudia Ware, whose diction and projection admirably conquered the wind. Puck (Wendy Strehlow), meanwhile, has become a uniformed charlady casting spells with teabags, and who, having promised Oberon she’ll “put a girdle round the earth in 40 minutes”, then moves in extreme slow motion. Hers is a Puck that, besides being lazy and incompetent, would probably be potty-mouthed between the scripted lines if we could hear.

O’Shea’s production is unmistakably Sport for Jove in its lightness of touch, the primacy of the text and irreverence for everything else. The closest we come to pure magic is the fairies, beautifully realised by Fuda, Bevan, Blome (also Demetrius and Flute) and Darius Williams (also Lysander and Snout). O’Shea conjures another glorious moment when Oberon and Titania are reconciled, and the former washes the smudged lipstick off the latter: smeared from passionately kissing a weaver with a fright wig and ass’s ears.

Go when the weather is more clement, and no doubt the laughs and even the magic will be magnified still more.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Leura Everglades, January 7-22.