Thursday, 19 July 2018

Theatre review: As You Like It (Open Air Theatre)

Second time lucky at the Open Air Theatre's As You Like It - if you thought London hadn't had a drop of rain for weeks you weren't in NW1 last Friday, when it came down so heavily the performance was abandoned before it could even start. Although this afternoon's grey clouds never resolved themselves into another downpour the fates still seemed against me seeing this production: At least two audience members fainted 20 minutes in, leading to a pause in the performance, and the least said about the pigeon that tried to land on my head in the second act the better. But Max Webster's production made it to the end, and the multiple marriages at the end of one of the more music-heavy Shakespeare plays, made even more so here with some original compositions by Charlie Fink.

It's also Shakespeare's proto-environmentalist play, and that's what Webster uses as a starting point, news reports about the damage being done by litter playing out while Naomi Dawson's set overflows with empty crisp packets and fast food wrappers.

Here Orlando (Edward Hogg) has been put to work in a burger bar instead of being educated as his brother had promised, and his attempt to find a way out of his rut leads him to a wrestling match, and Rosalind (Olivia Vinall,) daughter of an exiled Duke. The fledgling romance is interrupted when Rosalind too is banished to the woods, taking with her her cousin Celia (Keziah Joseph) and disguising herself as a man. Here she bumps into Orlando again as well as her banished father (Simon Armstrong,) and instead of giving up her disguise in what is clearly now a place of safety, comes up with the kind of convoluted plan that only makes sense in the context of an Elizabethan comedy.

A lot of work's gone into creating atmosphere in this fairly brisk As You Like It (under three hours even with stoppage time,) with songs and short scenes getting mashed up part of what speeds it along. The songs, mostly sung by an impressive Me'sha Bryan as Amiens, add energy but while the whole thing's fun, it's rarely funny. I don't know if the early medical emergency killed the atmosphere but this afternoon's audience barely reacted to anything - even "sell when you can, you are not for all markets" got tumbleweed.

On the other hand, in what must be the darkest twist to an As You Like It since Sam Mendes got divorced and took it out on the play, Oliver (Beruce Khan) is not only tortured by the usurping Duke but has his eyes put out as well. I mean, it's certainly one way of helping along the necessary shift in audience sympathy towards the character, but it does also mean that when Jaques de Boys (Kristian Phillips) arrives and is all "how nice, not only have I bumped into both of my brothers by chance but they're both getting married" there's a notable-by-its-absence "AND HOLY SHIT ONE OF THEM'S BLIND NOW!"

But for me the biggest problem was the central couple - I've liked Vinall in other things and was looking forward to her Rosalind, but it's only in her awkward attempts to play butch that she seems to have much fun with the role, and her chemistry with Hogg is non-existent. I think he's also about ten years her senior, which starts to make it increasingly clear how often Orlando is described as very young, and how Rosalind's always the one who takes the initiative in their relationship, giving the whole thing a tinge of the . In fact ironically the most genuine-feeling relationship ends up being the one that everyone dismisses as a joke, between Danny Kirrane's Touchstone and Amy Booth-Steel's Audrey.

In all, I did think a couple of the roles were either miscast or just not that memorably played, but on the other hand I thought there were some great ideas and a lot about the production that was likeable. I didn't laugh much though; neither did anyone else.

As You Like It by William Shakespeare is booking until the 28th of July at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

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