On Monday I went to see As You Like It performed by the Oxford Shakespeare Company over at Wadham College. Although many are aware of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival which sees an array, and often the most unlikely of plays, performed in the grounds of the colleges, this happens in Oxford too, and headlining it this year is As You Like It .
Taking-Shakespeare-outdoors has been popular for some years now, and whilst I’m not entirely convinced it’s always the best move – there’s something slightly strange about an open air open stage rendition of say Titus Andronicus. I know I know the Globe is outdoors and the concept is plagued by the inevitable “that’s how Shakespeare would have done it” kind of attitude. And of course Titus worked excellently at the latest Globe production. As an aside I’m particularly excited at the thought of a midnight performance (something they’re repeating with Anthony and Cleopatra). So, it’s not that I’m anti-outdoor theatre at all. But I do think a College grounds production is very different from The Globe, although there is some overlap. It seems to me that there’s something about an open air stage which seems to me to lend itself more to comedies, although I did see an excellent all male production of Romeo and Juliet a few years ago outdoors. There’s no hard and fast rule and I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare should be quarantined in indoor venues. You are indeed quite right “that’s how Shakespeare would have done it” crowd. And The Globe is a testament to that. I think the reason Comedies seem to work particularly well in this format is the level of audience engagement and interaction, even simply through laughs, that they by their very nature encourage. Something The Globe seems to strive for in all it’s productions – engaging the audience and to use that cliche – breaking down the fourth wall. I think for me the main difference with the kind of outdoor productions I’m talking about and say The Globe is the level of intimacy. The smaller audience is definitely a different animal. In fact I don’t think I’d seriously thought about how great a role an audience plays in a play before I saw this production. It’s something that seems silly now to not have crossed my mind and it is of course something actors are continually aware of. I remember the cast of the RSC’s Henry IV mentioning in a post-play talk how audiences inevitably react differently to lines from night to night. In this sense I suppose you could say that it is the audience who direct (at least in part) a production. Plays are of course a mutable phenomena and each play within the run will differ slightly because of actors and audience alike. Why else after all to we keep going back to see the same play? It’s like football. Same concept but different players and spectators for every game. But back to the play in hand.
The audience at As You Like It were a suitably mixed crowd. I went with a bunch of Shakespeare students from The University of Buckingham who spent the play either absorbing the action or else avidly taking notes ready to report back. Also watching the play were a group of international summer school students who were told before the production “don’t worry if you don’t understand the language just enjoy the play by a playwright who’s the greatest known Englishman” and quite right too, just enjoying the play is great advice. Often there can be so much emphasis placed on intricate analysis that we lose what lies behind such academic escavating – the play’s the thing. It was interesting to hear their whispered commentaries as the play progressed. And whilst there was the occasional mutterings of “How long is left?” credit where credits due, the actors did manage to raise a smile and laugh from them. Last but not least there were the rest which can be divided broadly into three categories tourists and locals, genuine Shakespeare lovers and playgoers, and those there because it’s Shakespeare and goodness that’s what one does on a summer evening. Easily detected, this last group can be heard laughing at jokes simply to make us aware that they’ve got it and making astute remarks. I’m aware this is a great generalisation. Clearly I’m not accounting for all the subsections of audience by any means. To my horror I almost joined the I-get-the-joke crowd at one moment when the “I met a fool in the forest” speech was uttered. Since David Crystal’s OP reading of this bit, particularly focusing on the hour/whore similar sound in original pronunciation the speech will forever be changed for me. As I mentioned this reading to my friend at the play’s end she said, “no wonder he laughs for an hour”. Something as simple as this shows how different readings and productions can have a profound effect on the way we see plays, characters, and lines of speech. In fact before we go any further here’s her take on the play (I thought it’d be a happy change to have a view from a non-Shakespeare researcher too):
“I’m quite familiar with literary adventures to Oxford, and on Monday I embarked on the next one as I arrived to see a production of As You Like It. Set on the lovely grounds of Wadham College, I don’t know what I enjoyed the most – the beautiful greenery or the play itself? Mmm, well yes, I suppose the play was far superior! Probably one of my favourite moments of the play had to have been Audrey and Touchstone’s hilarity-infused romance which spurred on both their love and the laughter of the audience. Despite the humorous plot, the singing was a bit of a damper on the production as it didn’t add any spice to the production. Perhaps, the singing just wasn’t my flavour. All in all, it was a lovely evening spent watching the play transform from words to life.”
Back to that all important production..
Comprised of a cast of only eight:
David Alwyn – Orlando de Boys
Charlotte Hamblin – Celia
George Haynes – Silvius, Amiens & Audrey
Alexander McWilliam – Oliver de Boys & Jaques
David Shelley – Duke Frederick, Duke Senior & Corin
Rosalind Steele – Phoebe, Madame La Belle & Mistress Olivia Martext
Rebecca Tanwen – Rosalind
Rob Witcomb – Adam & Touchstone
As you can see this meant plenty of doubling, whilst this added some comic undertones that you might not get from a larger company it also left us with a slightly troubling portrait of Touchstone (the actor also played Adam) and so the humour of Touchstone seemed sometimes in poor taste in part because moments earlier his alter ego character Adam had died. In fact placing the death of Adam immediately before the interval this production had a somewhat melancholic tone, despite it’s happy ending. There was something slightly tragic at play. Adams death although sad had never stood out to me in quite this tragic light before, made almost tragically comical by the remark of an audience member as the lights appeared for the interval, “is he dead, is he sleeping”. Unlike Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Nights Dream (staples of outdoor Shakespeare) As You Like It is perhaps less well known. In fact although there are many famous and oft quoted speeches in this play like the fool tale of Jacques (which was brilliantly done with contrasting accents by Jacques for the man he met and himself causing much hilarity) or his “All the world’s a stage”, I think often people have the view expressed by the gentleman quieting in front of me for tea at the intermission, “there’s been a few famous lines I’ve recognised. I had no idea they were from Shakespeare!”
The play opened with music dancing and mime as the courtly scene was painted for us. I spent some time puzzling over the mime-dance given by the characters trying to decide what the message was. It seemed to me that this was a kind of dumb show, there were various mime actions in time with the music but one in particular struck me as birth-life-death action, perhaps indicating the presence of such themes in the play. The motions might also have indicated the wheel of fortune as characters fall and rise in fortune as hands were raised and lowered in swift dance like succession. In fact there were several instances of mime later in the production too, as an almost charade-like approach was taken to the request by Touchstone that the ladies would “swear” by their “beards” although, it is in the lines.
There was some swooning, ok maybe not, but definite interest from the female members of the audience as the topless wrestling scene ensued. It was admittedly well done, although the ramping up of audience interaction complete with claps and cheers for the challenger seemed a little forced at times. Nevertheless it successfully got the audience involved in the action on the grassy stage in front of us. It was indeed a production punctuated by audience interaction with claps, whoops, and laughter; and no, I’m not just talking about the end of the play. But it is a comedy after all!
What I should perhaps have already explained is the way it was staged. Beginning sat on the floor, many on picnic blankets and facing the rear of Wadham College, we were soon to be on the move. This isn’t unusual so I gather from college outdoor productions. In fact over at Cambridge the Shakespeare Festival’s performance of The Taming of the Shrew at Homerton is again split between two stages involving an audience move mid play. I expected the move to perhaps be tied in with the interval to make the transition smoother. But true to interactive audience engaging form the move was faster than I anticipated and had us move over to the forestry area of the grounds (serving as Arden) for the rest of the play, Under the Greenwood tree was our beckoning song our cue to move before the end of the first act. The use of the space by the actors was, as a whole well done. Now seated in four stall blocks with handy entrance and exit aisles running between them the actors were within touching distance. It reminded me very much of the Globe and the actors intimacy with the audience. Weaving their way in and out of the spectators blurring the already hazy fourth wall. Although the grassy stage for the first fee scenes was empty bar a few actors and the occasional prop, the forest stage was comprised of a few well positioned trees (verses were hung on these in the interval) and a collection of boxes and cases used to hide behind as well as chairs by many of the characters.
A few costumes stood out, not least the cross dressing Audrey The disguised Rosalind (as Ganymede) looked very much like Mole of the RSC’s latest run of Roaring Girl. I think it was the hat that did it. I thought the hippy costume of Silvius was interesting and captured his love-centric (despite his difficulties) nature well. His inspects sang chasing around the stage and audience of phoebe was initially comic and highlighted his childish nature and hopes for love. The dynamic duo of Orlando and Ganymede aka Rosalind was well done and the perpetually sighing and groaning of Celia complimented their soppy and poorly disguised romantic endeavours. But come the arrival of her future suitor, just before the grand wedding finale, Celia mellowed and with love at first sight, she was in little position to judge the sometimes blush inducing wooing of Orlando and Rosalind.
Back to props and I think my two favourite, comic and thought provoking moments involved food. Surprise surprise. No really, I was surprised. The first moment was when Orlando – searching for food for Adam – stumbles upon Jacques & Co. who were I this production actually cooking food. There was a small gas stove and what smelt like mushrooms and bacon (my stomach may have been doing the thinking at that point) spat softly as the scene panned out. When Orlando eventually re-entered with Adam in tow they sat and ate with bread. Perhaps that’s what mad Adams death even worse, no not that he’d just had a Renaissance style bacon sandwich but rather the sense of community that eating and drinking give – already suggested in the text, but emphasised by the inclusion of real food on stage. It also got me thinking about the way we interact with plays, it’s not just listening too or reading the lines, but it’s the physical too, and the inclusion of smell added another dimension to the multifaceted experience that theatre is.
The other foody favourite moment involved etiquette, crockery, and hand sanitiser. Yes that’s right. Playing on the comic class and behavioural differences of Touchstone and Corin (Act III Scene ii) as Touchstone unpacked a napkin, silver cutlery and a play for his lunch, Corin unpacked sandwiches from a box. Comedy was ramped up a notch when Touchstone offered a bottle of hand sanitiser to Corin who, after gratefully thanking him, squeezed some onto his sandwich and tucked in. This invited grimacing giggles from the audience.
I think that captures the essence of the production really, it was fun although there were tragic undertones but with the marriage resolution at the end of the play there was a happily ever after sense and as Rosalind addressed the audience in the final scene (lines less intimate than usual in productions of this play because the audience had already been so involved in the action) there was a sense in which the “no harm done” or it’s only a play attitude expressed in The Tempest and A Midsummer Nights Dream was as true here as ever. Minus the death of Adam, and the somewhat sad story of Silvius (although that’s resolved too) who I empathised with much more than I expected to – clearly playing him as a snotty childlike hippy brought out a more compassionate reaction from the audience – the tears cried were mainly of joy not sorrow in this play.
This production of As You Like It tickled all our senses and like it, we certainly did.