As You Like It engages the audience at St Paul’s Church, despite the weather
Greeted like a “litter picker” at the door with a large dustbin bag and plastic gilet was not the most alluring way to walk into an evening performance. To attempt at an, almost entirely, open-air rendition of As You Like It, even in the English summer, immediately stereotypes the inexorable denial that Britain lives in when it comes to the weather. With the country swamped by rain every other day of the year, it seemed an ambitious production to stage. Iris theatre states: “There were some nights last year when our actors were almost washed away, but we ploughed on regardless, which just adds to the fun.” Does it really?
Without getting too bogged down with the weather, the play got off to a cracking start. At this point the ominous black clouds were at bay, and the acting had established itself as comical and compelling, despite occasional sentences being lost to the wind.
The filmic nature of the show was to move the audience around the garden and court, in order to set each scene differently. This was an engaging way to interact with the actors, and really feel a part of the drama. Despite the, mostly, smooth changeovers of audience shuffling from location to location, accompanied by Elizabethan recital, the part where Phoebe went from singing “come hither, come hither,” to shouting “it’s really dry in there you won’t get a wet bottom,” somehow took away from the fact that we were meant to be watching a Shakespearean play. However, logistically, these transfers amazingly worked. The audience were incorporated intimately within the acting, and only when they started handing out a loaf of bread to pass around, was that aspect less entertaining. A loaf of bread touched by the whole audience seemed more like an unhygienic communion, without the wine, which may have gone down a lot better.
The setting was beautiful. There were flowers and lanterns, a greenwood tree and wicker hideouts, which again were unfortunately aesthetically dampened. The play incorporated friendship, love, freedom, sacrifice and the famous Shakespearean theme of disguise. Emily Tucker was phenomenal both as Rosalind and her male alter ego, Ganymede. She was humorous and sentimental, domineering and stirring the other characters outstandingly. Playing effectually to every comic line written, she teased “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think I must speak”, she inspired frequent ripples of laughter throughout the audience. Matthew Mellalieu went from playing Duke Frederick to his own brother Duke Senior (which was a perplexing decision) to Audrey, which he mastered extremely capably. Shakespeare’s progressive fascination with stripping stereotypes from submissive females and domineering male characters was acted brilliantly in amongst the disguises and character changes. Diana Kashlan also provided huge entertainment in her role as Touchstone, the only character essentially emancipated from commitments and attachment, embodying the theme of freedom. Kashlan’s energetic but aloof, and sometimes unnerving, performance mimicked this ideally.
The play was spirited, engaging and impeccably acted, even with the downpour, which is certainly an achievement. When the heavens opened in Act Two, the drowned audience were still applauding and laughing, although tentatively at this stage. Regardless of the acting, the weather was undeniably on everyone’s mind, and that does matter. When you are clambering over strangers just to stand under the inadequate marquee erected especially, something is wasted in the occasion. Furthermore, when you cannot actually see the stage anymore because five umbrellas have been inconsiderately raised in the front row, the enjoyment is also somewhat lost. If the actors, the scenery and the brilliant interpretation of this unanimously appreciated Shakespearean rom-com were transported to a more audience-friendly environment, this would be a very accomplished piece of production and acting. However, with the right footwear and raincoat, it is definitely still worth the risk.
Photos: Hannah Barton