In Shakespeare’s comedies, the course of true love may not be smooth, but it is at least predictable. Young lovers are thwarted by jealousy, fear, and family pride. There are threats of honour killings, and threats of suicide, and for a moment the balance between comedy and tragedy teeters precariously. Then, in a garden or a forest, or a graveyard, in the dead of night, truth is revealed, treachery is exposed, hearts and relationships are mended. As the sun rises, and the lovers return to their courtly homes, their reconciliation spreads to embrace the whole community. Fast forward to evening: the newlyweds are feted with dancing and rejoicing, and then sent to bed. As Benedict puts it, “The world must be peopled.”
Give this general structure – given the role that darkness, mystery, the natural world, and the magic of midsummer play in these timeless and deeply satisfying tales – it is no wonder that companies have taken to staging them on summer evenings, out of doors, in settings as close to wilderness as the city landscape can afford.
What is more remarkable, to me, is how the magic of these plays, and their power to unite and heal communities, spreads so palpably to the audience. The performances are usually far from perfect. In fact, Repercussion Theatre is disarmingly unpretentious. They do not dress in the costumes of any discernable period, they do not attempt to sing in tune, and they do not quite succeed in adjusting the lines to fit the actual gender of the actors. Their microphones are very visible. Their music, mostly recorded, is as eclectic and funky as their costumes. But the actors perform with an infectious energy, and with a joy and a delight in each other’s company that radiates to embrace the audience as well.
It radiates, that is, if you are sitting close enough to see the faces and hear the dialogue clearly. I was fortunate enough to find a spot where I could do both. Just ahead of me, a father and his two very young children, William and Lily, had spread their picnic blanket very close to the stage. So close, in fact, that the handsome and dashing young hero Benedict crept from his hiding place behind a flower pot to whisper a few conspiratorial words in little Lily’s ear. She was visibly thrilled.
Lily and William were by no means the only children present. Much of the audience was still far too young to have encountered Shakespeare in school or any other setting. Alexandra, a woman in her twenties who was sharing a nearby blanket with her little dog, explained that she had begun coming to Repercussion Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park when she was a child, and that she had never missed a performance.
At intermission, Lily and her brother William happily accepted the task of drawing names for the raffle. It was encouraging to think that perhaps those two children, and many other children in the audience, would also return year after year, and continue to take delight in the Bard’s wit and his enduring wisdom. There was no doubt that their parents would encourage them in this direction. Their father told me that he had seen As You Like It at Stratford, just last week, and that although the acting was superb, he was finding Much Ado in the park even more enjoyable.
I passed that comment on to Alana Kellock, the artistic director of the production. She and her dog
Miley were mingling with the audience during the intermission, the latter touching noses with the many and varied canines in the crowd. The humans were equally varied, and the intermission chatter took place in many languages, and among people of all ages, and from all continents. It was clear that the company was achieving their stated goal, namely, to “deliver professional, classically based, visually dynamic theatre that is accessible to all, regardless of income, culture, language, age or education.”
After the play an elderly woman asked me if I was going to Sherbrooke, since she felt a bit disoriented in the dark. During our cautious walk toward the bus stop, she told me about some American visitors she had met, whose SeniorTours itinerary had included Much Ado as a highlight of their Montreal visit.
If you live in Westmount, you may want to include the show in your own itinerary, when it returns to the park on Tuesday August 8 and Wednesday August 9 at 7 p.m. in Westmount Park. If your partner, child, dog, or grandma, is free to come along, it is well worth packing a picnic and heading to Westmount Park early in the evening – at least by 6:30 – so that you can spread your blanket close to the stage. Camp chairs can be set up further back, but don’t sit too far away, or you may find yourself a mere spectator, rather than a participant, in this remarkable, annual community ritual.