Review: The Barden Party – magical al fresco Shakespeare in a garden near you

Erin Harrington reviews The Barden Party‘s touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed at a private residence in Swannanoa, North Canterbury, 2 April 2022.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of those rare works that is pretty much smashproof. It doesn’t matter if it’s performed by intermediate school students or the Royal Shakespeare Company, or even if you’ve seen it a dozen times before. Its comic interplay between love and duty, the marvelous and the mundane, has a rare magic. Nelson-based company The Barden Party are offering a particularly magical way to experience the show. The eight-strong troupe are dressed simply as travelling players. With a screen, a trunk, and their kit packed into suitcases, they are transforming gardens and backyards across Aotearoa into fairyland.

I see this festive production with about 40 others, adults and young people, in the extraordinarily lovely sprawling garden of a homestead in Swannanoa. We park in a paddock. We’re welcomed by our host and the actors, and settle in with blankets and picnics. There are drinks and snacks and a bold grey cat who occasionally pops through the playing space. There’s ample time to wander round the property. I can smell the flowers and the trees, and later, as it gets dark, woodsmoke. People are happy and chatty; it’s rare, right now, to be in groups together.

We start with a rattle of a tambourine and a song. This well-designed, witty and pared-back production, directed beautifully (and efficiently) by Laura Irish, teases out the play’s varying registers of comedy while nurturing the core relationships.  Each of the play’s three braided strands has its own flavour. The (mock) seriousness of the impending and slightly fractious wedding of Theseus (Charles Anderson) and proud warrior queen Hippolyta (Aimée Borlase) frames the conflict between the lovers: childhood friends Helena (Mackenzie Gardner) and Hermia (Molly Wilkin), Hermia’s beloved Lysander (Sam McIlroy) and her betrothed Demetrius (Matthew Edgar), who is the object of Helena’s affections despite being (let’s be honest) a real dick. Hermia’s blowhard father Egeus (Wiremu Tuhiwai) insists she marries who he says she marries or becomes a nun, or dies, feelings be damned. No way, dad!

The four race off to the woods, a liminal space outside of the strictures of Athens, and stumble into a conflict in the fairy kingdom. Here, the characterisation goes large and the delivery played for laughs. Scheming fairy king Oberon (Anderson) is close to a gurning, cartoon baddie. Mischievous firebrand Puck (Irish) races through the garden, and clambers over the audience pinching snacks and wine while undertaking her duties. They are a terrific double act. Queen Titania (Borlase), who is angry with Oberon (because he, too, is a dick), is imperious, dismissive. It’s a useful and very funny contrast, for both the outdoor setting and the world of the play, especially once the lovers’ affections become muddled up when enchantments go wrong. This production, more than others I’ve seen, treats the breach in friendship between Hermia and Helena seriously. It’s very affecting; it offers emotional grounding and clear stakes.

The third strand, the ragtag crew of ‘rude mechanicals’ preparing a play for the royal wedding, finds a silly sweet spot in the middle. There’s an earnest, child-like sweetness to this company (Gardner, Wilkin and Edgar) and their production, especially as long-suffering director Peter Quince (McIlroy) tries to wrangle the ambitions of weaver Bottom (Tuhiwai). Tuhiwai has an enormous stage presence and his Bottom a wonderful comic self-regard. That’s a weird sentence to write, but that’s the point, really. Bottom’s obliviousness offers an effective comic through-line, whether he is being wooed by Titania and coddled by fairies in his enchanted donkey form, is railroading the rehearsals of Pyramus and Thisbe, or is responding to the heckling of Theseus and Hippolyta mid-show.

Wiremu Tuhiwai as Bottom

Dry wit, buffoonery, high-impact physical comedy and frequent (often loose) contemporary asides are augmented with adaptations of pop songs (think Billie Eilish, Eurythmics), deftly arranged by Jake Byrom. There are surprises in staging and costuming. The players sing, play guitar and woodwind, rattle percussion, and wield kazoos like Groucho Marx waving a cigar. The speech and song are clear and legible in the outdoor space, and it’s a pleasure to see the ‘offstage’ players laugh, surprised, at their castmates’ choices. The pace of the production is shaped well, a counter to the threat of sore bottoms (the bane of al fresco productions). All up it’s a joy.

Outside of dramatic things like lockdowns, protests, collapsing systems and mortality, one of the most treacherous things about the pandemic is that it has quietly stripped away pleasure and connection. Goodbye spontenaeity and intimacy. Things feel anaemic, diminished. It’s a bit like the earthquakes, but our houses aren’t broken. In the arts, many people’s livelihoods and ways of being the world have simply been magicked out of existence. The word resilience needs to be tucked away in the back of a closet somewhere; it’s not helpful. During the show I am sure I am not the only one who thinks of the mantra of the travelling Shakespearean players in Station Eleven, itself drawn from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager: “survival is insufficient”.

At the end, after Puck’s half-apology of an epilogue, and (of course) more song, Laura Irish (un-Pucked) thanks the audience for supporting the arts. She implores us to continue to do so. She notes that the show’s genesis was a near complete loss of work for members of the company, and acknowledges the number of performers and creatives in the audience. As we head in for cake and coffee she asks us to say hello to people we might recognise but not know, find out about what they are doing, to connect. This, maybe, is this lovely show’s final gift – Oberon’s blessing on the house. Don’t break the spell.

The Barden Party is touring gardens, backyards and venues, large and small. They are also fundraising to take the show to the United States. You can find their gofundme here.

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