Shakespeare Under the Stars is a summer fixture in Melbourne. For the last thirty-five years, The Australian Shakespeare Company has been staging plays in the romantic setting of the Royal Botanic Gardens in between touring the country and overseas, as far afield as Stratford-on-Avon. After all these years, Glenn Elston is still at the helm of the company.

With fond memories of the ASC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet from many moons ago, I was eager to see their latest production, Much Ado About Nothing, billed as ‘Shakespeare’s battle-of-the-sexes rom-com’.

It was a perfect night. Neither cold nor hot, with a gentle breeze, a mellow crowd, a cloudy moon rising and a performance that was both spectacular entertainment and a faithful homage to Shakespeare’s play. His bumbling constable Dogberry (Madeleine Somers) and her laconic, gum-chewing partner Verges (Tony Rive) were transformed into knock-about roadies who formed the glue that held the show together. This stand-out comic double-act were the first onstage, warming up the audience in readiness for the girl band, The Babes of Disdain, and the boy band, Benedick and the Love Gods.

The rival acts burst on to a neon-lit stage and launched into a high-energy opening number, ‘Sigh no more ladies – Hey nonny nonny’, using Shakespeare’s original song from Much Ado in a 90s pop rock version, setting the tempo for the night – upbeat, exuberant and hilarious. A front line of female actors manned the microphones, backed by the boys, showing off the wealth of singing prowess in this multi-talented troupe of performers.

Each cast member was dressed in character. Brazen, modest or, in the case of the villain Don John (Nicole Nabout), exuding evil, Karla Erenbots’s costumes capture the essence of each one. Think Shakespearean doublets and breeches, crossed with bustiers and puffy hot pants. Frou-frou and glitz in every colour, with sullen black or leather for the cool dudes.

When the song started to lose its novelty, I began to think that Shakespeare’s voice might be drowned out by the pantomime and his script cut to the bone, but I was mistaken. The two-hour, twenty-minute performance includes the majority of the play and a deft unravelling of the plot. The action depends on mistaken identity, spying, betrayal, but above all on witty dialogue, especially in the scenes between Benedick and Beatrice. The team of performers attack it with relish. And the music, under the directorship of Paul Norton, is woven seamlessly into the text, responding to the wit and the changing emotions. It fuses Shakespeare’s words with new idioms and topical references, sustained by the constant presence of guitarist Tony Harvey, accompanied by backing tracks.

An extra dimension is added by Hugh Sexton as Benedick with his acoustic guitar. Sitting on the front steps of the stage, this macho ballad-hater reveals himself as a sentimental lover, enamoured of ‘Lady Disdain’, aka Beatrice (Anna Burgess). Benedick and Beatrice make a fiery, antagonistic (and then passionate) couple, but it is Sexton’s rapport with the audience that lifts the performance as a whole. And it is he who has command of Shakespeare’s language, of how to tease its meaning from the rhythm of the words and convey it to the audience.

But the production is not about stars. It is a feat of teamwork, from the two pairs of lovers to the backstage crew. It shows in the stage business, the perfect props (a large, wheeled road case is the perfect hidey-hole for spying on lovers, not to mention the collapsible drinks bar) and the comic timing.

The moon was large and low in the sky as we made our way out of the gardens. Shakespeare would have loved this, I thought. Even more than the Globe Theatre, with its open roof. Outdoor theatre, with a refreshed script that alludes to our world, a world with Taylor Swift and dating apps, just as Shakespeare’s plays have brought his stories of royal shenanigans into ours.

A few hours earlier, I had been afraid that Shakespeare would have been sidelined by the acrobatic vigour of our comedians, and the electronic wizardry of our music. But now I was happy that this production had revived Shakespeare’s spirit, mischievous and far-seeing, bringing back to vivid life one of his seemingly more modest plays.

Event details

The Australian Shakespeare Company presents
Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare

Director Glenn Elston

Venue: The Southern Cross Lawn | Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 23 Feb – 17 March 2024
Tickets: $25 – $115
Bookings: www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au

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