Shakespeare for the masses – as it should be …

Sally McLean as "Dowsabel" in "The Comedy of Errors"
Sally McLean as "Dowsabel" in the Australian Shakespeare Company's "The Comedy of Errors". Photo courtesy of Leader Newspaper Group.

Well, I now have photographic evidence of how I would look if I put on about 20 stone, courtesy of the Leader Newspaper Group.  Yep, the above photo is of yours truly as “Dowsabel” (the kitchen wench) in the Australian Shakespeare Company’s The Comedy of Errors currently playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, Collins Street, Melbourne.

Scarily, I don’t think it looks that wrong on me … but maybe that’s just because I am actually very fond of the “mad mountain of flesh” that is my character.  She is a joy to play and the amazing costume (built by Karla Erenbot) makes playing her so much more fun!

But it has given me a new appreciation for those who are “weight-challenged”.  Squeezing past my fellow cast members on the narrow stairs backstage at the Athenaeum has given all of us moments of hilarity mixed with the odd near-accident (usually when I lose all sense of spacial awareness and come close to knocking them over with my extended backside), and not being able to bend over, sit down comfortably or see my feet, for that matter, has given me a whole new perspective.  We joke that I’m giving birth to Decaplets, or at least Octuplets, and I found it interesting during the above photo shoot, when a guy in a suit walking past the theatre asked me when I was due.  I said Saturday (our opening night). Was he just going for a laugh? I guess I’ll never know …

But that leads me back to the original point of this post.  The Comedy of Errors is now up and running and it’s been a blast to perform to such appreciative audiences over the past week. It’s always a little nerve-wracking leading up to Opening Night with a new show (which this version of The Comedy of Errors is, with a new adaptation by Robert Benedetti and using masks in a style influenced by Commedia dell’Arte), but previews went really well and the Opening Night audience were probably the most vocal and engaged I’ve had the pleasure to perform to in my entire theatrical career.

As I said to the journalist who interviewed me for the Leader article, it’s been a joy to work with such a brilliant group of actors who not only “get” Shakespeare but are so great to share a stage with.  They are all truly talented performers and fantastic people and I feel very privileged to work alongside them. Working with Director, Glenn Elston, has also been a pleasure – and has proved to me yet again that his and the ASC’s greatest strength is being true to Shakespeare, while at the same time making his work accessible and relevant to modern audiences – something which I like to think Shakespeare himself would heartily approve of.

The main comment I have heard from audiences after the show in the foyer (particularly from those who don’t see a lot of Shakespeare) is their delighted realization of how funny Shakespeare can be.  Yes we are taking full advantage of the slapstick elements and bawdy touches that Shakespeare has put in the text – but that’s the point – Shakespeare put it in the text – and the words he wrote and we are performing are just as funny to the masses now as they would have been 400 years ago.  Which is exciting to be a part of and gives me great joy when observing this in action, perched in the wings watching my fellow cast members perform.

Essentially, with The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare wrote a rollicking good romp that is quintessentially one of the first and finest English farces.  And it still rings true for audiences today.  I can hear the audiences listening intently as lines are delivered – and laughing along with comprehension.  Glenn (Elston) has likened it to the classic English TV comedy Fawlty Towers – and he’s right – good, fun, crazy comedy when cleverly written and then interpreted by a director who understands modern theatregoers will always entertain and transport an audience.

I don’t often gush about a show I am in, but I can honestly say that I am delighted to be part of a production that I can proudly say, from the reaction we have been receiving, is entertaining the masses – in true Shakespeare style.

Hugh Sexton as Antipholus of Syracuse with Josephine Bloom as Luciana in the Australian Shakespeare Company's "The Comedy of Errors". Photo courtesy of Leader Newspaper Group.

The Comedy of Errors runs until Sunday, July 25th at the Athenaeum Theatre, Collins St, Melbourne.

Cast (in no particular order): Brendan O’Connor, Simon Mallory, Terri Brabon, Ross Williams, Kevin Hopkins, Hugh Sexton, Josephine Bloom, Syd Brisbane, Adrian Dart, Tony Rive, Shireen Morris, Phil Lambert, Doru Surcel, Lisa Angove, Sally McLean and Steve Rodowsky

DATES: Thursday 15 July to Sunday 25 July 2010
WHEN: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 5pm
WHERE: Athenaeum Theatre, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne
PRICES: Adults $45 A Res, $35 B Res; Concession/Groups $40 A Res, $30 B Res, Child $25 A & B Res
BOOKINGS: Ticketmaster 136 100 or the venue 9650 1500

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