As You Like It
Shakespeare in the Squares
Connaught Square, London
“They took all the trees/And put ‘em in a tree museum,” croon the cast of director Tatty Hennessy’s happily hedonistic As You Like It, as they sing and sway their way through the era-defining "Big Yellow Taxi". In fact, the trees in Connaught Square stand tall and proud, but the musical prelude effectively and persuasively transports us to the late 1960s / early 1970s, as Hennessy taps into the free-thinking, easy-living festival vibe of early Glastonbury.
The lyrics of the following number, "Proud Mary", promise, “If you come down to the river / Bet you gonna find some people who live / You don't have to worry if you got no money / People on the river are happy to give.” And this is just what the exiled Duke—or Duchess in this production—Senior finds when he’s booted out of his kingdom by his brother, Frederick, and seeks refuge in the Forest of Arden: “A life more sweet than painted pomp”, free from peril and envy, where there is “good in everything.”
As You Like It has more songs than any other Shakespeare play, and they both establish its themes and conjure its woodland setting. Here, too, the vibrancy and warmth of the music-making—the talented cast strum guitars, warble on clarinets and flutes, thwack drums and squeeze accordions with skill and ease—evoke a freedom which also characterises the cast’s unselfconscious dancing.
The foliage of designer Emily Stuart’s forest is a flutter of flamboyant pink and yellow streamers, festooned with light-bulb bunting. If this hints at psychedelic trips, then the ‘real’ journey of the exiles is signalled by two sturdy trunks splashed with feminist protest-stickers—for Hennessy has channelled “the spirit and style of [her] early feminist heroes into the wonderful women in the play”, and the fluid gender swapping of Shakespeare’s play is rendered even more free by the casting of women in the roles of the Duke and Jaques. And, potentially more confusing, one might worry, but in fact the ‘political slant’ is played with a light touch.
Comfort Fabian’s Celia reminds us that she has chosen exile “to freedom not to banishment” and, as the taxis and motorbikes raced along the sides of the Square and helicopters circled overhead, this Arden really did seem a refuge of feminist liberation and love. Fabian and Katharine Moraz’s Rosalind ditch the brown and mustard hues of the court for the floridity of the forest, the latter trading her tweeds for denim dungarees—she might have wandered in from the set of Blue Peter—which fit in neatly with the prevailing flares, crocheted cardies, corduroy slacks and cheesecloth checks.
If Shakespeare-al-fresco seems an intrinsic part of English summer evenings, then Connaught Square is surely the perfect locale for As You Like It. Gracious four-storey Georgian terraces—Duke Senior’s “envious court”—embrace a private gated garden, ringed with privet hedge, at the centre of which stands a majestic, mature plane tree, its trunk a ready-made billboard for Orlando’s poetry-posters.
Hennessy and movement director Yarit Dor prioritise the physical drama and restlessness. The wrestling scene is a tour de force as Lamin Touray’s Goliath-like Charles, resplendent in red leotard and gold champion’s belt, grapples with and is ferociously gripped by Jack Brett’s Orlando-David. Brett’s athleticism is striking: he rolls and roisters, leaps and retreats, lands squarely on Charles’s shoulders, tumbles and twists. Touray is comically dumbstruck by his competitor’s irrepressible and unpredictable endurance.
Brett’s Orlando is pugnacious and puppyish by turn. Disgruntled by his brother Oliver’s neglect of his education when exiled, when banished to the forest with old Adam, he learns true life-lessons, abandoning—under his ‘tutor’ Ganymede’s guidance—his slight romantic doggerel for the genuine language of love. Moraz is a natural, unaffected Rosalind—a ‘modern miss’ who is certainly wearing the trousers; she’s a mischievous Ganymede but one convincingly afflicted by woe and weariness too, and she welcomes the support offered by Fabian’s loyal, selfless and patient, though not uncritical, Celia.
The cast are uniformly committed and nuanced in their interpretations, and those in the ‘minor’ roles add considerably to the whole as well as standing out individually. Emmy Stonelake’s beautifully lyrical singing voice is as beguiling as her Welsh-accented lilt, and she wins our sympathy for the sick-of-love Phoebe, who mopes and sulks but ultimately accepts her matrimonial role as wife to Touray’s love-sick Silvius. Stonelake is also a delightfully self-indulgent Amiens, her bunches of ringlets bobbing with pleasure and joy, as she relishes the liberation of the woodland retreat alongside her lesbian paramour, Duchess Senior.
Julia Righton doubles as both Duchess Frederick and the exiled Duchess Senior and impressively distinguishes between the verse of the former, imperious and presumptuous in boots and breeches, and the gentle femininity of the floral-flocked latter.
Many cast members are required to double / triple-up, and Stanton Plummer-Cambridge shows his versatility as the snooty Le Beau, dishing out Duchess Frederick’s dry decrees, as the dastardly Oliver and as Corin, the shepherd who here—along with an inanimate sheep—reminds us of the play’s pastoral roots.
Sydney K Smith relishes Touchstone’s illogic and, in this instance, seemingly drug-fuelled spontaneity and ‘genius’ à la Hendrix; he is the perfect ‘fool’, exuding comic warmth and appeal, though his lack of substantiality is belied by his unprovoked reason: “Now I am in Arden, the more fool I. When I was at home I was in a better place.” Sian Martin’s Jaques is more surly than superior and there is perhaps some lack of natural gravity in this cynical courtier, but there is a fitting hauteur and high-and-mighty-ness.
It is perhaps one of the pitfalls of theatre en plein air but there is rather too much rough-and-tumble and the pace is fast and unrelenting. As the characters rush about, through and around the garden amphitheatre, the delicate patterning—the meetings and partings, matches and pairings, and the gracious formal parallels—of the original is too often weakened or lost. The cast’s diction is superb: not a line is lost to the wind. But, as the sun sets, the absence of lighting further diffuses the focus of the dramatic threads that are tied together in complex knots and schemes.
Moreover, that hint of sadness which perennially tinges pastoral pleasures is missing. Shakespeare’s Arden was an ironic paradise—a place of danger and discomfort as much as desire, of hardships as well as hedonism. It is a world without human violence, injustice and prejudice, but one not without its own moral and physical challenges. As Duke Senior reminds us, the woods are a “desert inaccessible / Under the shade of melancholy boughs”, and when asked by Corin how he likes the ‘shepherd’s life’, Touchstone replies, “In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a vile life. […] in respect it I not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life, look you, it fits my humour well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach”.
The closest that this production gets to melancholy, and (unintentional) irony, is during the musical prelude to the second half of the performance, when the cast sing John Fogerty’s"Have you ever seen the rain?": “Have you ever seen the rain / Comin' down on a sunny day?” Emmy Stonelake mutters, “please, no, not today”, but the dark skies are ominous, and the droplets fall before the ‘curtain’ does.
However, Orlando’s lament, “I can no longer live by thinking”, prompts Rosalind to renounce both didactic romantic pedagogy and playful riotous diversion, and the comedic marriages effect their happy conclusion. Despite the storm clouds over Connaught Square, this production is sunshine all the way.
Reviewer: Claire Seymour