As You Like It

William Shakespeare
R.J. Williamson Company: Nottingham Castle and Touring

There can be few better experiences than watching Shakespeare in the open air in an atmospheric setting like Nottingham Castle - especially when it's done as well as the R J Williamson organisation do it. Over the past couple of years I've seen them develop to such an extent that there are no genuine challengers to their tag of "Britain's largest and best-loved open-air Shakespeare company".

It's only a matter of weeks since I saw the RSC perform As You Like It in the Swan. The RJW version, done in Victorian/Edwardian costume, is so much better you almost think it's a different play.

Most of the pre-tour publicity surrounded Tracy Shaw's agreeing to play Celia. However, she pulled out, citing exhaustion. She's not missed. Her understudy, Jenni Bowden, in her first Shakespearean production, is a more than capable replacement. Her scenes with Rosalind are delightful and she even flirts with Orlando before she is put in her place.

Martha Swann is probably the most passionate Rosalind I've ever seen. She is absolutely smitten from the moment she meets Orlando! She is charmingly attractive in the early scenes, full of fear when Duke Frederick banishes her and sprightly when she cross-dresses as Ganymede.

The male lead can be difficult because Orlando can come over as soppy or sentimental. Gary Tushaw, though, plays it perfectly, putting the right amount of emotion in and never overplaying the role.

From even before the play begins, when Adam (Michael Gabe) sits on hay bales with Jody his faithful sheepdog at his feet, you know you're in for a special night. The set is bigger and more elaborate than previous productions and at Nottingham there's an extra grandstand this year because the company's reputation has continued to grow.

Early on the fight between Duke Frederick's wrestler Charles (Lincoln James) and Orlando is spectacular as they use the full width of the set and make it look so authentic you're expecting to see blood on the grass. The audience joined in too, booing Charles the way grappling fans used to show their derision during televised wrestling bouts.

It's the small, extra touches that usually set apart an RJW production, although Touchstone's goat is missing in Nottingham - it couldn't travel from the previous venue Brighton because of foot-and-mouth restrictions. I'm assured understudies will be in place when the tour moves on to Holland Park and Leeds.

As for Robert Williamson himself, he takes the role of Touchstone as well as co-directing with Frank Jarvis. Williamson is exceptional in tragedies and he proves he can also do comedy, extracting every possible laugh from the text as well as speaking each line with clarity and meaning.

On an evening when rain threatened during the second half - thankfully there was only a short shower - the cast placed great emphasis on mentions of the elements in the text. And Rosalind earned applause for her line to Orlando "I am a magician" which coincided with the lights coming back on after a second's darkness when it seemed as though the weather had made the Forest of Arden a darker place.

The fifteen actors double up on occasions and anyone new to the play might have had difficulty differentiating between some of the characters. That is a small criticism of what was essentially a magical evening.

The RSC version, I felt, lacked passion, jollity and the feelgood factor. The RJW production has them in abundance. It should be as everyone likes it.

"As You Like It" tours until September 7th

Reviewer: Steve Orme