As You Like It
As You Like It has somehow escaped me over the years. I only skimmed over the text when preparing for my finals one very hot day in May, many years ago, on Southampton Common. I quite liked it then. And yet, I have always wanted to know exactly how amusing it really was when performed. Finally, in July 2016, on the verge of a summer that has been so reluctant to heat up, I had the opportunity to enjoy a delightful staging of the comedy in the open air in the ever impressive Savill Garden.
What more could one want? Here was a delightful drama in a wonderful English garden, in the hands of Watch Your Head, a brilliant theatre company. An amusing title. An expectation of fun and games. A celebration of Shakespeare 400 years after his death, in a venue courtesy of the Queen in her 90th birthday year. And it didn’t even rain!
But there was more, indeed. In-keeping with an emerging theatrical trend, it was all done on the move. A promenade performance, where we followed the actors around from scene to scene on an expansive stage. At times, this prompted mock glares and some huffing and puffing from the actors as some of us got in their way. Mingling with the cast produced a thrilling sense of intimacy that you just don’t get at The National.
There were no seats, just blankets on the grass for softies. I preferred to take my stand in the spirit of Shakespearean audiences in the bear pit at the Globe all those centuries ago. I would stand for great theatrics any time. This also allowed a head start when proceeding to the next patch of stage, though there was plenty of garden for everyone in this extraordinarily natural representation of The Forest of Arden.
The Savill Garden in bloom, photo via Windsor Great Park
Here, in this naturalistic setting, with words bouncing off trees, greenery all around and birds providing background music, along with horses neighing somewhere over yonder, there was a sense that we were not just watching a play, but partaking in a real life experience, with the boundaries between the cast and the audience blurred.
I won’t pretend that I got all the jokes, but I chuckled inwardly several times and there was plenty to smile about throughout. See more thoughts on language and jokes in Laughing With Shakespeare
I think it’s fair to say that As You Like It contains witticisms and subtle moments of merriment rather than rip-roaringly funny jokes and pranks. It also relies on skilfully argued interchanges where love – always a subject rife with misunderstandings – is explored in depth.
The beautiful Rosalind (Anna Lukis) engaged in playful cross-dressing, disguising herself as Ganymede, a handsome youth, who ‘himself’ then played the part of the same Rosalind, in a prolonged discourse with Orlando (Lewis Goody). Orlando – now there’s a blooming good name – somehow had no clue that he was taking lessons in love from the girl that he was in love with, despite the countless times that Ganymede revealed his/her feminine side.
Rosalind (left) and Celia, photo via The Stage
Rosalind as Ganymede
And then we had Jaques (Jack Bannell), the comic star of the play. Jaques (pronounced 'Jake wheeze') appeared to be drunk at times and looked for some while like the revolutionary Che Guevara. He sought no more than to be a “motley fool”. Jaques also had the most memorable lines from the play. Lazing on the grass, he told us that
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players”
He proceeded to set out the seven ages of man, going from “infant, mewling and puking” right through to “second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (Act 2, scene 7).
Jaques, photo via ExclusiveMagazines.co.uk
The music was performed by the cast and it was marvellously uplifting. Special mention goes to Rose Riley (Amiens/Audrey) for her soothing tones, accompanied by fellow cast members playing the accordion, cello and violin. This charming folk music added another form of magic to an already enchanting performance. I was happy to be reminded that Thomas Hardy got the title of one of my favourite novels from the line “Under the greenwood tree / Who loves to lie with me”.
Amiens / Audrey and the band
Similarly, the play was enhanced by the brilliant performance of Josette Beth Davis as Phebe on the high rope in the forest, and, more daringly, on a ring suspended above the stone courtyard in the wedding breakfast scene. This was a spectacular finale to the physicality of the play.
Phebe and Silvius, suspended in animation, photo via EssentialSurrey.co.uk
We should end with words, though. Rosalind appeared in comely form once more, facilitated the various matrimonial arrangements, and finally ended the play with a telling epilogue, where she challenged women to “like as much of this play as please you”. Men were encouraged to share in this experience. For anyone who had been wondering about the title of the play, here was a late clue.
This was a truly moving performance, emotionally and physically. A well loved play. A well laughed-at play. The production had been mildly criticised in a review in The Stage as “charming but lightweight”, but surely that was the point. Comedy should not be weighed down by too much argument and heroic behaviour.
I relished the creative brilliance; the staging of the drama in a completely natural setting. Not just representation but reality. There was a wondrous ambiance in the open air, in an extensive, burgeoning, leafy setting. An inspiring evening's entertainment all round.
I came away with the feeling that this is how Shakespeare's plays are meant to be performed. Not always in a garden, of course, but on the move, and in natural surroundings. The next time I find myself in a conventional theatre I suspect I will feel somewhat confined, and not just physically.
Was I moved? Moved to the next set of trees, certainly. Moved to laughter several times. And moved to look out for some of the remaining Shakespeare comedies that I have missed over the years. I close with an all-time favourite line:
“With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino”.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
See Laughing With Shakespeare (Connected Cultures) for further commentary on Shakespeare's comedies
Watch Your Head - theatre company