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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
AS YOU LIKE IT
at Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park

SPIRIT OF LIBERATION
By CLAIRE ALLFREE

  Amy Booth-Steel and Joanne McGuinness/ Ph: Jane Hobson

Few venues in London are better suited to stage Shakespeare's weird and lovely romance than Regent's Park. It has ready-made trees, in the evening a ready-made twilight and, you might even argue, its own built-in ineffable magic. Yet the opening scenes of Max Webster's production offer very little by way of bucolic charm. It begins in a downpour, with the cast on stage singing "For the rain, it raineth every day" (recycled, of course, from Twelfth Night) in front of a depressing-looking moat clogged with discarded coffee cups and KFC cartons.
 
This, then, is the court of Duke Frederick (Simon Armstrong, grim in a grey suit) by way of ecological dystopia, or at the very least, corporate joylessness meets acid rain and a wanton disregard for taking one's reusable cup to Pret a Manger. Happily the vibe in Arden is much more Glastonbury Festival's Field of Avalon – a self sustainable hippy retreat where Corin the Shepherd picks up the litter, flowers grow inside recycled oil drums, everyone lives off the land and where someone, probably, is brewing craft beer.
 
Yet Webster's production isn't, thankfully, an eco bore. Rather, it simply and often powerfully channels the play's giddy spirit of liberation and transformation. It seems to me no accident that, alongside Charlie Fink's indie folk score, various cast members break into cheesy song – precisely the sort of feel-good pop Noel Coward called "potent cheap music." And when Olivia Vinall's Rosalind and Keziah Joseph's fabulously forthright Celia decide to escape Duke Frederick's punitive court, it doesn't only feel like a MeToo moment of female solidarity against the patriarchy but also a quixotic gesture of teenage rebellion against a corrupt – or certainly wasteful – establishment. There is a better life to be had if we can only seek it and seize it, seems to be the message here.
 
Never mind that, though. The best thing about this production is how fun it is. Touchstone is a show-stealing Danny Kirrane, more priapic caveman than inept jester who carries a pop-up tent all the easier to bed Amy Booth-Steel's up-for-it Audrey in the forest (but who is also no convert to love's utopia; in one of the production's more brutal moments, he makes it clear he might not stick around in their forthcoming marriage for long). Vinall is an excellent and entertaining Rosalind – reduced in an instant to a giggly, hair-flicking quiver at her first sighting of Edward Hogg's bitterly anguished Orlando, an image banished equally instantly by her feisty incarnation as a hip-hop Ganymede, all low-slung jeans, street-smart attitude and lopsided cap. Meanwhile Jacade Simpson's wimpy Silvius was never going to win over Joanne McGuinness' pleasingly yobbish Phebe with his love token of choice – a giant teddy bear that, unsurprisingly, ends up in that moat.
 
I was much less taken by Maureen Beattie's Jacques, whose melancholy seems mainly hewn from a dour Calvinist pessimism and who, rather than provide a counterpoint, instead feels at odds with the production's fuzzy felt spirit. And there are oddities too – at one point Orlando's brother appears with a very bloodied eye, as though the Duke and his henchmen had removed it, Goneril style. This isn't the most detailed or coherent reading of Shakespeare's admittedly tricky play. But it is as enjoyable as a Pimms on a (very) hot evening.

 


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