I have seen more productions of As You Like It than any other play. In fact, I have seen it more times than any film (except perhaps Disney’s The Little Mermaid). The thing about As You Like It is that it tends to get wheeled out in summer, onto a stage decked with bunting and actors clad as hippies, where everyone has a very jolly time and forgets the production within a week. This production, however, is different – although the bunting still remains. Beyond the uplifting spirit there is also something more sinister and political that underscores the central action.
This is apparent even before the play begins, thanks to Naomi Dawson’s set. Firstly, it is worth noting the beauty of the theatre itself; an ideal location for a play grounded in the natural world. It would have been easy just to amplify the natural beauty of the environment, however Dawson has been more provocative than that. Strewn at the sides of the stage are piles of litter, much of it floating in the small moat at the fore. It quickly becomes apparent as the play begins that the battle between city and forest is one of highly politicised ideologies: businessmen throw coffee cups into the waterborne debris, unassuming forest-dwellers pick it out.
Relocating Shakespeare into the modern world can sometimes feel contrived and even ridiculous. The joy of this production is that it transforms these potential negatives into humour – something which is often found lacking in the opening scenes of this play. Thus, Orlando (Edward Hogg) wields his litter-picker like a sword, we have perky all-American cheerleaders to spur on the wrestling match, and Charles the Wrestler lumbers in feasting on a KFC bucket. At times, these are cheap laughs, but it makes the play feel accessible and puts the audience in high spirits from the word go.
Director Max Webster’s decision to set his production in the present offers more than just humour, however. In Shakespeare’s text, those who live in the Forest of Arden are exiles and outcasts, those who disagree with the fundamental way in which the rest of the world is governed. They are not nostalgic hippies, but rather the most extreme form of protestors. This spirit of rebellion was conveyed most strongly through the character of Jacques, of all people. Maureen Beattie takes the role and, within minutes, convinces you that Jacques was always written as a dreadlocked Scottish woman in an oversized overcoat (the way that she pronounced the word “warble” is seconded only by David Tennant’s “murder” in BBC’s Broadchurch). The pretentious philosophising social recluse who I’ve seen trotted out in countless productions was totally obliterated by the end of her Seven Stages of Man monologue. Rather than out-of-touch and unaware, Beattie’s Jacques is a rebel with a cause, and by the end of the play she’s headed off to fight for it. Hers is the voice that undercuts the revelry of the other characters; in the context of modern-day politics, and with this strong Scottish messenger, Jacques’ “melancholy” no longer feels like self-absorbed wallowing but an acknowledgment of harsh reality and a call to action.
Another cast member whose characterisation blew me away was Kezia Joseph as Celia. Typically, Rosalind is portrayed as the witty heroine of the play, orchestrating various plots all whilst dressed as a man – how feminist of her! Celia is the constantly side-lined best friend, less gifted in looks and brains, left to third-wheel for most of the play. Webster’s refreshing take on these two main female characters is one of the best things about this production. Casting Celia as black allows a whole new perspective to emerge. It is clear to the audience that Celia is interested in Orlando, but Rosalind (Olivia Vinall) seems utterly oblivious. Rosalind’s blonde Caucasian looks and grace are the reason she is banished. Celia is constantly being undermined and overlooked. Yet when they reach the forest, it is Celia who fits in most easily. Rosalind is caught up in her immature plan, playing a fuckboy Ganymede in the most excruciatingly unconvincing manner and forever disparaging women. Around her, the women of the forest wear dungarees and toolbelts, free and wild and strong. “You have simply misused our sex”, Celia accuses Rosalind and, in the audience, I give a silent cheer. Rosalind’s form of female empowerment is born of a distinctly white feminism, which she is willing to take off and hang up when it suits her; by showing us the story through Celia’s eyes, with Joseph a frequently unimpressed onlooker in Rosalind’s scenes, it enables a much deeper and more sophisticated discussion of the gender dynamics at play.
Finally, it would be unjust not to mention the beautiful voice of Me’sha Bryn, whose singing was impeccable, and Danny Kirrane’s Touchstone, who spoke Shakespearean so fluently that I honestly felt I could be overhearing a conversation at the pub. The ambience of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is wonderful and I can imagine it would make a fantastic date location. The fact that the theatre was packed in spite of the England/Croatia match is in itself a testament to how good this production is – and clearly, all things considered, the audience made the right call.
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