REVIEW: Passionate Acts (SHAKEITUP!)

Donogh Rees and Alistair Browning show us how Shakespeare is done right.

Passionate Acts Shake It Up [by Sharu Delilkan]

Donogh Rees and Alistair Browning show us how Shakespeare is done right.
Donogh Rees and Alistair Browning show us how Shakespeare is done right.

“Not Shakespeare again” I thought en-route to the preview of Passionate Acts, Grae Burton’s and Alistair Browning’s scenes of passion from Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Driving up the entrance to the magnificent Pa Homestead I lamented how and why Shakespeare persists when there is so much modern and contemporary excellence around, some of which hardly gets a look in by the crowds that William himself can pull in [grouch].

On entering the hallway I realised what a total Richard III I was being, as Grae Burton (the producer) and Maxine Cunliffe (front of house manager) welcomed us, explained the order of the day and deftly directed us to the drinks table. After some chatter in the foyer and a look around at the amazing Ian Scott’s paintings on show in the adjacent gallery, we soon settled in and took our seats on the covered back terrace with our food hampers to begin the show.

Featuring an ensemble cast of truly established and emerging actors, I have to say the choice of snippets from Shakespeare lightened my anxiety and utterly engaged me throughout.

It was obvious from the get-go that all the actors would have been challenged throughout the rehearsal process given the multiple roles they had to take on – but take it on they did with gusto, professionalism, humour and the occasional use of brand new technology.

At no point did I feel excluded or overwhelmed by the language due to the astute and well-timed delivery and seeming comfort of the actors with each other, and the varied material.

The six strong cast led by actor, creator Burton and actor director Browning kept us audience members on our toes throughout the evening. They darted in and out of view from all directions as we sat on the balcony in the sculpture garden in the first half and then did the same again with a little bit of variation in the second half. The setting of Pah Homestead was given great prominence as we watched the actors spout their Shakespeare with utter dramatic and comedic precision.

I’m a big fan of site-specific theatre and using Pah Homestead in an innovative way did that in spades. I’m glad to hear that Sir James Wallace wants this to be the first of many live performances at this amazing location – if only there were more places in Auckland that opened their doors to us theatre practitioners it could well be a solution to the age old problem of limited venues to stage theatre!

There was no doubt that SHAKEITUP! comprised a great ensemble of both seasoned and emerging actors that provided the audience with a range of acting talent at its best. To be honest I started off thinking that some of the actors were far superior to others, given their previous experience, but ended up feeling that there was an element of levelling when the younger actors were given their chance to shine in the more forgiving of Shakespearean pieces such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Passionate Acts does exactly what it says on the tin. It features accessible bite-sized scenes from some of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. These include Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It was a treat to see actress Donogh Rees and Browning jousting with one another on stage. I could hear a little voice inside my head saying “that’s how you play Shakespeare!” and Burton’s serious as well as comedic dramatisations were equally impressive, making the whole experience extremely entertaining. The other three actors Katherine Kennard, Jason Hodzelmans and recent Auckland Actors Program graduate Moana McArtney all distinguished themselves in equal measure throughout the evening with the various roles their played. Acting-wise the bar was set very high by the dependability and excellence of Browning and Rees – the latter especially oozing sex appeal as Cleopatra and the former excelling in all sorts of roles from Princely Kings to lowly shepherds. Burton never failed to astound with some hilarious roles as Petruchio and Malvolio but instantly transformed into Benedick and the malevolent and seductive Richard III (the King I mean). Both Kennard and McArtney sparked off each other beautifully in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hodzelmans as Lysander was awesomely confused and conflicted as well as being playful in all his other roles.

For me it was the choice of what to show and when to stop that was most inspired, giving us a glimpse of the versatility of the Bard without being flippant and “only doing the best bits”.

Adding to the magical evening were so many factors – the beautiful surroundings; the falling of dusk; the passerby kids peering over the hedge in the background stopping to watch, the automatic lights coming on at just the right time as Anthony dies in Cleopatra’s arms; the sculptures in the background; as well as the sheer grace and enthusiasm of the front of house team – I could go on, but I think I already have.

To be honest before attending I was expecting an adulterated compilation of Shakespeare that had the potential to be less than the sum of its parts. In reality I was being a bit of a ‘Bottom’. For those that love Shakespeare and those that have never seen his work, I recommend you see this fun, poignant production – it may even get you hooked on this genre!

The setting, the talent and the clear passion that has gone into Passionate Acts is obvious for all to see. When I initially thought ‘not another Shakespeare’ I was wrongly correct as this is not just ‘another Shakespeare’. This is Shakespeare I could relax with, enjoy the language and enjoy NZers doing it fabulously in a beautiful NZ setting.

SHAKEITUP! presents Passionate Acts and plays at Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, 72 Hillsborough Rd, Auckland until 22 February. More information at SHAKEITUP!

SEE ALSO: review by Lexie Matheson

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