Shakespeare on the Green at Waverton Coal Loader
This production was charming and silly, which is entirely appropriate for this play. This venue, which has been re-configured as public space with an active community centre, offers a host of different areas suitable for performance, and is a really pleasant place for a picnic with a bit of a show. Given a 1968 Summer of Love setting, just at the point when beehives and go-go boots (the Court) were giving way to Afghan coats and beads (in the forest of Arden), it made perfect sense for everyone to be discovering themselves while getting in touch with nature.
Where it wavered was in a patchy design whereby some outfits were convincingly of the designated period, and others smacked too strongly of making do. Late 60s/early 70s is not too difficult a period to costume, and a more rigorous eye from the costume designer would have made a real difference to the final polish. The other problem was the depth of the batting order. While the key players, Rosalind, Celia, an Oliver who probably should have been Orlando, the doubling Duchess, and a pleasingly vivid pairing of Audrey and Touchstone, were able to maintain vocal energy, those in the supporting roles felt likely to have been cast because they were the best that could be secured for a project of this kind. The standout performance was Cat Martin’s Jaques (Jax, here), reimagined as the kind of fashionable, counter-culture embracing socialite Edina from Absolutely Fabulous would hope to be seen with.
I usually find myself resistant to interpolations of modern asides in productions of Shakespeare, because they usually look like apologies for a joke not working (in the Belvoir As You Like It of 2011, for example, Rosalind kept saying things like “It’s really very witty!” when her lines fell flat). In this case, however, the incorporation of 1970s hippie talk was genuinely funny, because we were seeing one kind of archaic expression fused with another, causing us to notice their similarity. “Peace, I say. Good even to you… man” serves as a neat sending up of the way people have always adopted catch phrases that then become dated. My personal favourite was Jax’s, “Motley – it’s the new black, darling.”
There is a flaw in the structure of As You Like It, whereby the audience is showing up for the Rosalind/Orlando interactions, but the first of the couple’s meetings once Rosalind has adopted her disguise doesn’t actually occur until the third act. There is simply too much plot to get through before the payoff. Breaking up the show by performing Act I on a concrete platform with a backdrop of coal yard brickwork, and then moving the audience to a more pastoral portion of the gardens was a help here. This production was lively, brisk, and made the most of the opportunities to inject the play with things a modern audience might actually laugh at. Unfortunately, however, you need actors who are really brilliant showmen to carry an audience through the lags in pace and torturous clown-delivered rhetorical set pieces. For our times, As You Like It is, sadly, not as compelling a play as Much Ado About Nothing (which is coming up next).