As You Like It runs until the last week of July, and it is hard to imagine a more rewarding and pleasurable way to spend a summer evening. Even if this most suspect of summers denies you fine weather, the company will ensure you have much to think about in a play that in the right hands will always reveal more layers and resonances than you expected.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it.
When conversation gets sticky over lunch at Windsor Castle, the Queen is said to resort to asking the guests to guess the identity of the many jet aircraft that roar constantly overhead. Most guests are non-plussed, but Her Majesty apparently can identify each one from a grim familiarity with its engine note. No wonder she often looks so unamused in public…
This anecdote, perhaps too good to be true – or even too true to be good – came to mind often during this fine immersive outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in the Savill Garden, Windsor. It must be very hard as an actor to have that carefully honed speech or neat piece of business drowned out for thirty seconds or more. You cannot stop the action, but you are resigned to losing the meaning of the moment. Such are some of the perils of outdoor theatre. But there are plenty of opportunities too, once a production escapes the proscenium arch, and the innovative outdoor performance company Watch Your Head exploit them to the full.
This is a play where there are many layers of disguise, several shifts in locale, and more light and shade than you might at first think. A frothy light comedy this is not. Quite apart from the famous speech of Jacques that reminds us of our own mortality, there is a tartness to the patterns of exile and reunion, gender-swapping and recovery, and familial in-fighting that is a constant reminder of the human capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and the fragility and indeterminate nature of most if not all relationships. The play may end with a wedding and the typing up of loose ends as strict as in any corset, but as always in a Shakespeare ‘comedy’ it is the alternative vistas and possibilities explored along the way that remain as important and sobering a part of the total experience.
One of the great strengths then of this production is that this darker side is not lost among the charming glades, specimen trees and well-manicured flower beds of the Savill Garden. It must be tempting to play this venue simply for pretty escapism, a simple playground of a Forest of Arden; but it is to the credit of director Sasha McMurray that the glorious setting, with all of its distinctive spaces, is only the starting point of a searching and sometimes painful exploration of all that this rich play has to offer.
The performance is book-ended with scenes located in the award-winning Visitor Centre, where the audience sit at tables and the actors deliver the opening and closing scenes on the terrace in front of them. Leiths provide drinks and ‘wedding breakfast’ dining options to fortify the punters before and after their trek through at times boggy, but never impassable terrain. Once the basic relationships and characters are established we move off at quite a clip, with cast members who are not performing the next scene acting as marshals and guides. All this worked very efficiently and no stragglers were lost along the way.
A lot depended on the leads to establish their characterisations quickly and memorably, and by and large this was achieved with energy and flair. As Orlando, Lewis Goody deserves great credit for a performance that was continuously physically fluent despite the handicap of what appeared to be a broken arm. He projected hurt good nature and innocence in the early scenes with his brother Oliver (James Hardy) and irascible Duke Frederick (Mark Carlisle), and then very plausibly fell in love with Rosalind/Ganymede (Anna Lukis), while remaining full of wry wit and self-awareness. His deft delivery of the text was individual and detailed, yet heart-felt.
The partnership between the actors playing Rosalind and Celia, best of friends in and out of the green wood, is at the core of the play, and here Lukis and Molly Hanson were outstanding, both in affection and joshing rivalry. Lukis appeared more relaxed and at ease playing Ganymede than Rosalind, and could have been more assertive in her natural guise, but together they were the motor of our journey through the maze of both the garden and the emotional unveilings that took place within it. It was particularly impressive how Hanson bobbed in and out of the audience, involving us in the action. She also spoke the verse quite beautifully, and coped perhaps best of all the cast with the aircraft noise and other incidental hazards along the way.
It was also a real strength of the production that there were three of the players who were specialist acrobats or dancers. Without any compromise to textual delivery, this lent a physical shape to several key scenes and – crucially – to the fluid, fully interpreted transitions between scenes, so that it was never a matter of actors simply moving from one part of the terrain to another and declaiming their lines. As the rustics Silvius and Phebe, Luke Chadwick-Jones and Josie Beth Davies performed an elaborate routine on a single rope suspended from an oak, and gambolled from one handstand to another as they quarrelled their way through the later scenes. They were ably assisted by the free-movement dance of Jonah Russell as Corin. More formal choreography involving the whole company came from Thomas Michael Voss.
As the misanthropic Jacques, Jack Bannell was not wholly convincing. There was nothing wrong with his delivery of the famous ‘Seven Ages of Man’ – indeed there were several fresh emphases and inflections. He also thoroughly looked the part. But there are plenty of other important contributions this role should deliver to the play where his delivery seemed rushed or off-hand and where he could have done more to draw the audience into his alternative perspective on the world. As I have said, there was light and shade in this production but it came more from the other characters than from him. In particular, Mark Carlisle as the two dukes and Owen Young as Adam, made sure their contributions received full weight of consideration. As Touchstone, Oliver Grant found a lot of gradations too, from tomfoolery through to melancholy.
The musical values of this play, never far below the surface of the text, were beautifully realised here in a true ensemble effort. Several of the actors are also musicians and when they were not performing, were adding their own accompaniment to the action on double bass, guitar, violin or other instruments. It is no easy to task either to find plausible and pleasing musical settings to lyrics as famous as ‘Under the green wood tree’, but Bruno Major’s music managed it, and was at its most lyrical and effective when sung by Rose Riley’s silver-toned Audrey.
The production runs until the last week of July, and it is hard to imagine a more rewarding and pleasurable way to spend a summer evening. Even if this most suspect of summers denies you fine weather, the company will ensure you have much to think about in a play that in the right hands will always reveal more layers and resonances than you expected.