As You Like It – Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Max Webster

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Rosalind in As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s greatest female roles, a protagonist with wit and intelligence who commands much of the action. The play itself will either sweep you away with its dreamy romanticism, or, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it’s crowd-pleasing sentimentality will get on your nerves. Max Webster’s new production for the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park sits right between the two, and hasn’t quite found its tone.

Living at court with her cousin Celia, the beautiful Rosalind is soon banished by the cruel usurper Count Frederick, but not before she spies the comely Orlando at a wrestling match. Disguised as boys, the women escape to the Forest of Arden where they are taken in by a group of Forest Folk led by Rosalind’s father who she fails to recognise. Following his love, Orlando and the disguised Rosalind meet once more where she teaches him how to woo.

This modern version of Shakespeare’s tale of multiple romance takes a while to hit its stride, with the two Acts before the interval feeling a little stagey and flat. Characters talk a lot but not much happens, so Webster makes a virtue of the play’s many ditties, giving them a folksy musical theatre make-over to buoy the pace. Often a distraction from the story, here they dominate which doesn’t always fit with the playful or melancholic tone of the preceding scenes.

As a visual experience, designer Naomi Dawson uses a metal rigging and plastic strips, surrounded by litter-filled moat to suggest a cold Courtly world, devoid of warmth or humanity, which transforms in an instant to the Forest of Arden complete with country shack. There is a climate change, good living, ecology motif that doesn’t much relate to the play and a slightly confused aesthetic for the costumes which makes everyone look like cowboy hillbilly gardening 80s rappers. Although it does all look beautiful in the twilight.

There are some good moments, particularly in the silliness of the love scenes between the foresters, and this production is at its best when it is most playful such as a WWF fake wrestling match in the first Act. But the more earnest it becomes about love, the flatter it feels, and while Maureen Beattie is an excellent and revered presence as the gender-swapped Jaques no real room is given to the forlorn balance the character provides.

Forget the central lovers, the star of this show is undoubtedly Danny Kirrane as Touchstone whose performance is at just the right pitch. Every time Kirrane is on stage, the audience is sure to laugh at the added physical comedy, modern pop songs and ad libs that go beyond the text to find a credible character you want to root for. Kirrane has the rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse, making it feel natural and as if he were making-up the lines and the jokes on the spot.

Olivia Vinall’s Rosalind and Edward Hogg’s Orlando have little chemistry which despite endless protestations of true love, never feels like an exact match. Vinall does all the right things as precisely as a ballerina, but there’s no wildness in her Rosalind, a volley of words with no passion. She plays Ganymede as a bit of dude, although none of the male characters act this way, making it a strange reference for Rosalind to have drawn on.

If you make it past the interval, Webster’s production of As You Like It livens considerably towards the end, with a pleasing and beautifully staged finale that visually moves into boho-Glastonbury territory. Having Rosalind lift Orlando in her arms is a very nice touch in a play that celebrates the determination and agency of women but tells you all you need to know about Orlando’s masculinity! Bernard Shaw is right about the play’s populist appeal, but this version could please the crowd a little more.

Runs until 28 July 2018 | Image: Jane Hobson

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