There is something about the Maynardville Open Air Theatre that feels sacred to me every time I step through its gates.

For the past six decades, theatre worshippers have convened here to celebrate the beginning of each New Year. Armed with blankets and coffee flasks, they bear witness to the performance of that year’s chosen William Shakespeare play – brought to life by some of South Africa’s most creative minds.

This is not an isolated experience. When you watch a Shakespeare production (be it in Cape Town in 2013 or in England in the 1590s) you are taking part in something lasting, kept alive by passion. This ritual spans more than 400 years, and is observed globally.

Audiences are in for an even bigger treat this year, as there are two productions on Maynardville’s bill: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cardenio. Both are comedies, and will keep viewers laughing with tales of mistaken identities, broken hearts, and love that ultimately conquers all.

Directed by Fred Abrahamse for the second time (first in 2002), A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set largely in a magical forest. The story consists of three interlocking plots – all taking place around the marriage of the Duke of Athens to the Queen of the Amazons.

After a quarrel over the possession of a servant, Oberon (Marcel Meyer), king of the fairies, decides to play a wicked trick on his queen, Titania (Kim Cloete). He commands his mischievous court jester, Puck (Sven Ruygrok), to apply a magical juice from a flower called “love-in-idleness” to Titania’s eyes while she is asleep. The potion makes its victim fall for the first living thing seen upon awakening.

Meanwhile, a young lady named Hermia (played by the feisty Zondwa Njokweni) is having a quarrel with her father, Egeus. She loves Lysander (James Macgregor), but her dad is forcing her to marry Demetrius (Nicholas Campbell). As a last act of defiance, Hermia and Lysander escape to the forest.

Hermia’s best friend, Helena (portrayed as a deliciously Afrikaans boeremeisie by Hannah Borthwick), suffers badly from unrequited love for Demetrius. In the hope that he will turn to her, Helena spills the details of Hermia’s and Lysander’s escape.

But, while tracking the lovers through the forest (also the home of the fairies), a frustrated Demetrius treats poor Helena even more cruelly. Secretly observing this abuse, a disgusted Oberon orders Puck to administer a dose of the magic potion to Demetrius’s eyes as well – hoping he’ll lay eyes on Helena after waking.

But Puck makes a royal mess of things, and accidentally puts the potion in both Lysander’s and Demetrius’ eyes – making both fall in love with Helena! He also turns an unfortunate actor, Nick Bottom (Terence Bridgett at his best!), into a zebra-donkey who becomes the object of Titania’s affections.

Abrahamse’s stage settings and costumes intrigued me. At times I felt as if I was watching a Salvador Dali dream-inspired artwork come to life. At others the costumes and choreography reminded me of a potpourri of Andrew Lloyd-Webbers’ Cats, Cirque de Soleil, and the Moyo restaurant at Spier.

Shakespeare also had his crude side – something Abrahamse thankfully does not shy away from. His actors lose a remarkable amount of clothing by the end of the piece, and I’ll leave Bottom’s incredibly correct donkey anatomy (spotted through Bridgett’s pants) to your imagination.

Like the high-calibre director that he is, Abrahamse inserts these elements merely as a bonus. His main achievement remains being able to present a fresh interpretation of a production several hundred years old, without losing any of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s magical essence.

This year also sees the first-ever staging of Cardenio at Maynardville. And even though the verdict is still out on whether the world’s most famous playwright actually wrote it himself, it is a must for lovers of Elizabethan theatre.

Directed by Roy Sargeant, Cardenio also deals with the pursuit of love, this time through a series of nastier events. Cardenio (Armand Aucamp) is in love with his childhood sweetheart, Luscinda (Jenny Stead), and plans to marry her with the help of his best friend, Fernando (Francis Chouler).

However, like a comedic version of Othello’s Iago, Fernando goes out of his way to steal Luscinda for himself, although he’s already betrothed.

l A Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed on February 6-9, February 20-23, and March 13-16 at 8.15pm. Cardenio is performed February 13-16 and March 6-9 at 8.15pm.

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