Shakespeare in the open air – a tale of three festivals

Brisbane Shakespeare Festival: Twelfth Night

Over the past couple of months I’ve been to three Shakespeare shows in public parks around south-east Queensland. Spring has sprung and it seems we can’t wait to get out and enjoy the best weather the new season has to offer in tandem with some of the works of our favourite playwright.

The first of the three was the annual Brisbane Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare (BSF) on Oxford and, since last year, by the lagoon at Sandgate. The BSF is a week-long romp which is now entering its 5th year. The production – this year BSF presented Twelfth Night – is one part and, arguably, the centrepiece of a whole range of Shakespearean-related activities. The organisers are clearly feeling confident about the continuation of the Brisbane Shakespeare Festival, and have called for ideas for the 2012 festival on Twitter.

My second outdoor Shakespeare production this season was the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble‘s (QSE) production of The Merchant of Venice in Brisbane’s Roma Street Parklands. This was for a very small audience indeed – probably 100 or so at a time. This close proximity of audience to actors enabled a more intimate experience of text in action than did the spectacle of BSF and USQ. The QSE also put the audience under the rotunda and away from any nasty rain that could spoil things as it did for the third company, USQ’s Shakespeare in the Park Festival.

As part of their 8th season USQ presented A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Toowoomba and at Hervey Bay. For the first time the company included a cohort of seven professional graduates from the former Acting major working beside current undergrads of the USQ Creative Arts course. Clearly, the weather is an issue for any company that decides to go outdoors. The USQ company experienced some awful weather in Toowoomba during the season and decided to go indoors for several performances when the skies opened with a vengeance up on the hill.

USQ Shakespeare in the Park: A Midsummer Night's Dream


USQ Shakespeare in the Park: A Midsummer Night's Dream

What these productions have  in common, apart from their fondness for the open air, is the work of Shakespeare, the most popular playwright on earth. Shakespeare companies and festivals are a commonplace the world over, and I have been to many over the years. These outdoor productions are hugely popular especially in the northern hemisphere where the summer is to be celebrated in as many ways as you can.

Whilst Australia has quite a few dedicated Shakespeare groups, I’m going to take a punt here and say that south-east Queensland is leading the way. Apart from outdoor productions, there are at least a couple of other Shakespeare-focussed companies in Brisbane: Shake and Stir and Grin and Tonic spring to mind, though these two professional companies extend their educational-focus to the works of other writers.

Every production in this past ‘Shakespeare outdoors season’ was composed either of fully professional performers or professionals with a mix of students – probably because of the size of cast involved. It’s a great way for actors in training to learn on the job – a bit like an apprenticeship.

Both USQ’s and QSE’s productions included trained and in-training actors, and it showed. This is not intended as a criticism; indeed, it shows clearly the value of training and experience – as if you doubted it. There may have been a couple of clunky moments as the less-experienced actors came to grips with the demands of, possibly, the most demanding stuff you can attempt but, on the whole, both of these productions were very satisfying.

The Brisbane Shakespeare Festival’s Twelfth Night company was composed of trained and experienced performers – in fact, some of the city’s leading actors – working, one suspects, for the love and not the money. Playing two shows only over a couple of weekends is laudable, if not good economics, for those taking part. The audience at the performance I attended (Bulimba Park) was huge. Let’s hope the BCC and their various ward Councillors continue to encourage and develop this initiative to get rate-payers into the city’s green spaces, and do it with far more financial support.

QSE: The Merchant of Venice
QSE: The Merchant of Venice

Personally, I love the whole idea of getting outdoors and experiencing theatre in a different way – USQ’s audience-friendly and spectacular (in the true sense of the word) productions have always used movement, colour and music as focussing devices as well as the relaxation of a picnic atmosphere to attract audiences. However, the many and varied distractions that come with the outdoors are always an issue and, especially, when a show plays in daylight. I was, however, charmed to see several wild ducks stop and watch Bassanio woo Portia during the QSE’s performance on one Saturday afternoon … and I’d love to see the BSF play from dusk through to night – just a personal preference here. There’s an excitement about taking the day through to night on story; the sun sets and lights bathe the stage, and the same moon and stars so often referred to in the plays are actually right there. I got a thrill from this during USQ’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I don’t mind telling you – I saw it on a clear night!

‘Thinking different’ for a bit – I would really love to see the various sponsoring organisations for these three companies – and the other Shakespeare companies in the south-east – come together to create the wherewithal for a bigger Shakespeare Festival. There is no reason that SE Queensland cannot play host to an international Shakespeare Festival – perhaps as an adjunct at Brisbane Festival time. What do you think?

In the meantime you can see USQ’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the newly-formed alumni company appears in the Roma Street Parklands next month. Get all the details from their Facebook Page. If you’re not on Facebook – try this

Direct from the University of Southern Queensland’s Shakespeare in the Park Festival. Directed by Scott Alderdice, designed by Carolyn Taylor-Smith, USQ Theatre Alumni Inc presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Roma Street Parkland Ampitheatre.

Season Details:
Fri 18 + Sat 19 Nov $20 preview
Thu 24 – Sun 27 Nov and Thu 1 – Sun 4 Dec
$30 Adult $20 Conc $15 Groups 10+ / Child under 12

7.00pm gates open at 5.30pm

Tickets on sale NOW! Visit (group bookings available only via phone booking 1300 438 849)

Main Image: USQ Shakespeare in the Park – Queen’s Park on Dusk. Thanks to USQ Artsworx.