As You Like It
14/02/2017 - 11/03/2017
Theatre , Outdoor ,
Relevant, funny and memorable
Review by Leigh Sykes 16th Feb 2017
As You Like It is one of the plays that is believed to have been written with a special pair of young actors in mind to play the female leads. Rosalind has more lines (25% of the whole play) than anyone else in the play, and even addresses the audience in the epilogue – unheard of (I think) for a female character!
In the programme notes, Director Benjamin Henson suggests that “Shakespeare’s master stroke [is] the unshakeable relationship between Rosalind and Celia”, and this relationship and this form of selfless love and friendship is at the play’s heart, making it vital that we engage with the actors performing these roles.
Fortunately, this production gives us a memorable couple in Francesca Savige (Rosalind) and Jessie Lawrence (Celia) who speak the language with assurance, and truly support and enhance each other every time they appear. Both actors fill the space vocally and physically and their strong bond is indeed unshakeable.
Savige’s delight on beholding Orlando is just as deep as her despair at Rosalind’s banishment: both are palpable and convincing, aided and abetted by Lawrence’s ability to truly listen and respond to the circumstances. Lawrence has a lovely way of drawing us into the play with her natural and funny reactions to Rosalind’s behaviour, while Savige is by turns fierce, vulnerable and very human as she takes us with her on her journey.
Both actors frequently address the audience directly, making us feel included and necessary components of the play. This relationship between Rosalind and Celia, along with the performances that create it and make us invest in it, is one of the production’s many strengths.
Aaron Richardson (Orlando) also strikes a fine balance, able to include the audience and be totally present within the world of the play. His wrestling match with Charles (Kyle Shields) is a fast-moving highlight early in the play, and the audience and Rosalind cheer him on with abandon.
Orlando can sometimes seem overshadowed by Rosalind’s boldness and wit as she is written as such a force of nature. Richardson gives us an Orlando that holds his own both vocally (although he is made to work extremely hard against some very loud music at one point) and physically, and whose own quick wits in partly seeing through Rosalind’s disguise make us warm to him even more.
The Court of Duke Frederick (played with some specific and comedic touches by Allen Bartley) is an austere place, where costume (designed by Alison Reid) and behaviours indicate constraint and conservative values. Black and white is the main colour palette for the costumes, which are constricting or deliberately old-fashioned. This is supported by the simple lighting (designed by Marshall Bull) that lacks colour and variety.
Everything changes when we enter the Forest of Arden, represented here as a free-wheeling, colourful, energetic (and sometimes hungover) music festival, complete with pop up tents and a DJ booth, from where Amiens (Damien Avery) keeps the energy flowing throughout the play with both acoustic (composed by Cally Castell) and electronic music (including a particularly good dance set during the interval). This Forest is full of colourful lighting and clothing with memorable characters and events.
Here, the different type of energy and behaviour is signalled by a wonderfully energetic and enthusiastically performed dance number (choreographed by Olivia Tennet), allowing the cast to let loose and to be as entertained by each other as we are.
The characters in the Forest have removed themselves from the constraints of court and are led by Duke Senior (the very regal Maxine Cunliffe). As Jacques, Kate McGill has the unenviable task of delivering some of Shakespeare’s best known speeches (so well known that I can hear members of the audience whispering along at one point). She gives a fresh take on Jacques, making the character less bittersweet and melancholy and more frustrated at the ridiculous antics of those who profess to be ‘in love’. I also perceive an element of ‘fear of missing out’ in McGill’s performance, which uses physicality and a very strong French accent to deliver a Jacques that is very much at home in this environment. She interacts well with the audience, and brings energy to all of her scenes.
There are many faces of love on display in the Forest, and they serve to highlight the depth (or height) of the love between Orlando and Rosalind, which is an attraction of minds as well as bodies. The earthy shenanigans of Audrey (Murdoch Keane at this performance) and Touchstone (Bronwyn Ensor at this performance) show the physicality of love, while Silvius (Lucas Haugh) and Phoebe (Mirabai Pease) show the infatuation of love. But it is the (by comparison) chaste coming together of Celia and Oliver (Arlo Green) and Rosalind and Orlando that makes the audience sigh with fulfilment.
Henson shows the ability to be both very Shakespearean and very modern at the same time in his direction of the play. He uses the outdoor space and configuration of the stage and set (designed by Andrew Foster) to great effect, playing intimate moments across a wide space and still making them believable and touching. The concept he has applied to the play also gives him the opportunity to make sense of the curveballs that Shakespeare provides in the script, with his approach to Hymen being both highly entertaining and utterly fitting.
There are many memorable moments, and while the ensemble-created herd of goats, and the phlegmatic responses of Corin (Karen Ellett) to their mishaps is a particular highlight for me, I also appreciate Arlo Green (as Oliver) bringing the audience in on his plot to do-away with Orlando, using some subtle but very funny facial expression; Bronwyn Ensor’s physicality and commitment to Touchstone’s comedy (even if some if has become opaque with age); Murdoch Keane’s high-energy raunchiness (as Audrey) and Lucas Haugh’s thwarted but deeply felt love (as Silvius) for Phoebe (Mirabai Pease). There is some very funny physical comedy between Ensor and Keane and Haugh and Pease that really tickles the audience’s funny bone.
There is something magical about sitting outside as the light fades, seeing a cast bring Shakespeare to life. Despite the persistent rain at this performance, the cast (despite some stage conditions leading to a number of falls and slips) makes us forget the inclement elements and focus on the warmth and vivacity of the characters and the story. Although there are some moments in the second half of the show where the pace slackens, there is plenty to keep us entertained.
This is a show that deserves to be seen, and which carries on a fine tradition of making Shakespeare accessible both in terms of location and clear and enjoyable story-telling. I would happily watch it again to see what happens when Keane and Ensor switch roles (a coin is spun before the start of the show to decide which actor plays which role), as well as to see moments I may have missed.
This is a production that makes Shakespeare relevant and funny and memorable.
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