As You Like It is the perfect summer Shakespeare, a gently meandering forest comedy that culminates in a clutch of happy marriages. It is sugared pastoral, with singing shepherds and poetry pinned to the boughs of trees. I was surprised, therefore, to find the stage at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre strewn with heaps of rubbish, coffee cups and crisp packets floating in the semi-circular pool that forms the front section of the stage. “An edgy, contemporary As You Like It?” – I thought to myself, curiosity piqued – “by all means”.
The rubbish heaps are soon revealed to be visual manifestations of a half-baked conceit surrounding the environment. The production opens with “The Rain It Raineth Every Day” exploding as a cringy pop-rock banger, delivered by a performer best described as the ghost of 90s past in a white vest and tracksuit trousers. This comes after a medley of news clips delivering flooding reports are played over the sounds of thunder, the rather ingenious stage design incorporating sprinklers so that is does indeed raineth on the performers at key moments – banishment and despair, cue the sprinklers. Aside from the heaps of detritus, the stage is completely bare: an industrial metal wasteland with hints of abattoir suggested through the chainmail curtains that form the back and side walls of the performing area. It is an oppressive, uncomfortable space, and its effect on the audience is revealed in the spectacular yet simple transition to the Forest of Arden: instantly it seemed the whole audience was able to breathe more freely, and from this point the production too relaxed and flourished, literally blossoming after the interval in all ways. Although we are probably meant to find the resolution of the environmental concerns in the contrast – industrial and dirty, bucolic and clean – this production does not do justice to the magnitude nor the inclusivity of current environmental issues. When it raineth, the countryside usually suffers far worse than the cities and there is no sense of the Arden-dwellers being more environmentally conscious than their littering city counterparts. They simply don’t have the same access to disposable coffee cups, and besides, they seem to come from an entirely different era and country: the Wild West of the mid 1900s.
The Hillbilly aesthetic given to Arden – there is a sudden profusion of cowboy hats and banjos – gave me pause. It seems a strange stylistic choice, to equate an historic American ruralism with enlightenment and inclusivity. The irony was especially spicy the night I saw this production, as a Stage Manager came on before curtain-up to announce that we may have to pause proceedings as the Presidential helicopter, on his way to the Embassy, would be flying directly overhead. The programme discussion of Arden as Utopia or Eutopia, a nowhere place and a good place respectively, had this to say: “In As You Like It, [Shakespeare] created the Forest of Arden, an illustration of somewhere that he could imagine how things might be different from the world in which he lived; a place where people treated each other well and with respect.” This to me sounds more like Wakanda than an unspecified patch of Mid-West America in any time-period, and so again this production falls foul of the contemporary politics that it brushes on without thoughtful or thorough engagement.
There are a few other things to query in this production: the blinding of Oliver is an odd addition and the fight sequences are clunky – I could see the choreography all too well and at one dreadful moment was able to see the actor “being hit” making the sound of the punch on his own chest, which caused a flutter of unfortunate derision in the audience. Having said all this, the second half of the production is incredibly, delightfully charming and the performances are very strong. Olivia Vinall and Edward Hogg lead the cast as a charismatic Rosalind and Orlando: particular praise must be handed to Vinall for her deft and confident expression of character and comedy in the verse. Her epilogue is one of the highlights of the production; thoughtful, charming and clear. Her Rosalind is a strong, feminist character, who manages to make more suspect lines generalising on the nature of women into charming jokes with the audience: the sole piece of contemporary politics this production successfully navigates. Maureen Beattie as Jacques (pronounced Jay-Kwez for some reason) is a masterclass in relaxed, deadpan performance with moments of real emotional depth. Danny Kirrane as Touchstone is also great fun, bringing several contemporary references, and Keziah Joseph as Celia is a strong performer who speaks the verse very naturally with good comic timing. Joanne McGuinness is a scene-stealer as the rough and rude Phebe, and Jacade Simpson is terrifically pathetic as her fawning lover Silvius. The cast are also incredibly talented musically, with strong vocals provided for the most part by Me’sha Bryan and an ensemble of instrumentalists playing violins and guitars in a medley of folk-y tunes. Their cheer and optimism are infectious, and I left the theatre feeling buoyed up by the summery glow of this outdoor production.
This show is well-worth seeing, if for no other reason than it somehow manages to transcend the usual curse of classical theatre in that the second half is infinitely better and more engaging than the first. The performances are joyful, and, as there was no interruption of a shuddering helicopter overhead, I was able to forget modern politics and problems for a while – much as this production forgets its own politics – and bask in the sunshine of a ramshackle Arden.