Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Nicky Diss
Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a play about stories and story-telling. There are all sorts of biblical and folk tale elements – a sort of Cain and Abel set-up mixed with a variant of the Prodigal Son, together with mercurial tyrants and motherless families. To all this Open Bar, in their Fuller’s Shakespeare in the Garden production, add their usual shtick – deliberately awful songs, cheesy interventions and audience participation.
Two sets of brothers have fallen out – Oliver withholding from his brother Orlando inheritance and an education, while Duke Frederick has snatched power from Duke Senior. The latter, the good Duke, has set up an alternative court in the Forest of Arden. When the play opens, we hear of an old man whose three sons have all failed in a contest with Charles the Wrestler. Enter Orlando, who not only overcomes the mighty Charles but captures the heart of Rosalind, the banished duke’s daughter. But his lack of education renders him tongue-tied in her presence.
Rosalind and her cousin Celia, daughter of the bad duke, are forced to flee the court, Rosalind disguising herself as a young man, Ganymede. When Orlando meets them in the Forest of Arden, he is persuaded by ‘Ganymede’ to practise wooing him/her to cure his seemingly hopeless love. Orlando must call her ‘Rosalind’ and the ruse gives him confidence to voice his feelings.
There are further layers of folk tale and literary conventions – love poems are pinned to trees, and we meet a shepherd and shepherdess, Corin and Phebe, plus a more realistic country girl, Audrey, together with court fool, Touchstone and assorted pretend vicars of the sort known to roam forests. We hear that Orlando has rescued an old, bearded man from attack by a serpent and a lioness. The old, bearded man turns out to be Oliver: having left court only a couple of acts ago, he has had time to age. This is all part of Shakespeare’s running joke about the passing of time – characters deep in the forest make plans to meet at precise hours, without so much as a sun dial in sight. Then there is the memorable odd-ball, Jaques – he of the Seven Ages of Man speech – an articulate and cheerful melancholic (“I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs”).
Open Bar’s approach can all feel a bit hit and miss, and the company’s determination to sum up the plot three times in the evening feels like too much of a good thing. There are, however, some funny doublings and triplings of the six-strong cast. Darrel Bailey puts in excellent performances of both good and bad dukes and World Wide Wrestling champ Charles. Thomas Judd presents both romantic hero Orlando and straw-chewing shepherd Corin with humour and grace. Vicky Gaskin adds plenty of her own comic business to Touchstone, although is less successful at finding humour in Shakespeare’s lines. Laura Smithers throws herself energetically into various parts. In her hands the normally shy Celia, bursts with merriment and comic energy. Tianna Arnold gives a certain puppy-like charm to Rosalind.
The standout performer, however, is Emily Carding, an experienced Shakespearean actor, new to Open Bar. Cool and witty, Carding gives a mesmerising performance of Jaques, and transforms the normally forgettable Oliver and Le Beau into strongly comic characters. Carding’s vocal range and transitions from stillness to energy effortlessly command the stage.
It’s an entertaining if over-long evening: a bit more judicious cutting of stage business would not come amiss. Producers Nicky Diss and Vicky Gaskin seem unaware of the potential irony of their stated aim to ‘squeeze out every possible laugh’ from the text. However, Open Bar’s As You Like It, like their companion production, Love’s Labour’s Lost, is good-natured and entertaining and is clearly a crowd-pleaser. Tours until 16 September 2021 in various Fuller’s pubs venues in London and the South East