In the pantheon of Shakespeare plays, “As You Like It” seems to have an unspoken question mark hovering at the end of its title. Much like The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour”, it’s not often spoken of in the same sentence as the bard’s equivalents of “The White Album” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.
But does this new (and musical; I wasn’t just indulging a secret passion in the previous paragraph) production from The Watermill Theatre’s Ensemble, adapted by Yolanda Mercy, make the case for its inclusion amongst Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits?
The story, it must be said, doesn’t get off to the best of starts. For me, Shakespeare’s plays tend to be overstuffed with characters and frontloaded with multiple storylines, all of which are tricky to keep track of (especially if your attention wanders for a moment). As scripts go, “As You Like It” is no exception.
Two warring brothers (Orlando, played by Ned Rudkins-Stow, and Oliver, played by Yazdan Qafaouri) have a bit of a barny about inheritances, before Orlando – for reasons that initially escaped me – decides to wrestle the imposing Charles (played by Jamie Satterthwaite). The match is watched by Rosalind (played by Katherine Jack), daughter of the exiled Duke Senior. She falls for Orlando, to the bemusement of her cousin Celia (played by Chanelle Modi), daughter of the new Duke Frederick (played by Omar Baroud), who decides to banish both Orlando and Rosalind, both of whom (together with their respective friends) decamp for the Forest of Arden, where ‘tis said the deposed Duke Senior has taken up residence…
…or so I’m informed by the programme, which includes a handy one-page synopsis which I would heartily recommend reading before the performance begins – it’ll make everything infinitely easier to follow!
While on paper the opening is perhaps a touch slow, The Watermill Ensemble’s production really brings it to life and propels it along. The action (taking place outdoors) is set amidst a modern-day warehouse filled with oil drums and toxic waste – perhaps symbolising the turgid, toxic environment of the court – which subsequently transforms into a wrestling ring, replete with giant foam fingers, popcorn and thunderous drumming; while a subsequent interrogation as to the whereabouts of Orlando takes a decidedly modern turn with the introduction of a car battery and some jump leads.
But it is when the characters reach the Forest of Arden that this production really comes into its own.
When we meet the exiled Duke Senior, we might be expecting an equivalent of MacDuff or Prince Malcom, readying himself for revenge. Instead, we meet Bill Oddie. Outfitted like man who’s been given some Timberland vouchers for Christmas and who has taken up a pair of binoculars rather than a sceptre, Jamie Satterthwaite’s Duke has led his entourage not into banishment, but into liberty…by way of lite-paganism. It’s hardly surprising – set amidst The Watermill’s stunning gardens, who among us could resist the urge to spread out a picnic blanket and repurpose our business papers as kindling for a campfire?
As the recent exiles from the court gradually arrive, they too undergo the same transformation – the politics, grudges and violence of the court give way instead to love notes, singing and dressing up (yes, this is another Shakespeare play where a thin disguise manages to beguile everyone!). Duke Senior is instantly welcoming to Orlando and company, not because he wants to build up an army to retake the court, but because he’s simply a nice guy and Orlando will probably provide decent harmonies around the campfire.
It might sound light, or inconsequential – this doesn’t have the dramatic heft of “MacBeth”, or the sense of wonder of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – but as the characters sometimes reflect, that’s kind of the point. This really is a play about just kicking back and relaxing, shedding any concerns about careers or “wasting time” in favour of a glass of Pimms, another tune, and doing good deeds for good deeds’ sake.
It’s hard to argue with the chilled-out message of the piece, especially when the production really goes out of its way to embody the bucolic spirit. The Warehouse from Act I quickly transforms into an eco-shelter (the whole set is commendably made of recycled materials), bedecked with creeping vines, fairy lights and guitars. And many of the play’s showpieces feel like an evening revue set around a campfire, taking the form of puppet shows or sing-a-longs.
And credit really is due to the cast here – it’s one thing to put a production in a bucolic outdoor setting, but they really make you feel at home there, a part of that open, welcoming gathering around the campfire. A brilliant selection of modern folky songs (featuring, amongst others, Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons) smattered throughout the show give the evening a familiar and accessible vibe; while the incidental music they provide and which underlays the rest of the performance gives the 400+ year-old play an almost mystical sparkle that often made my skin tingle with pleasure.
Is it as good as Shakespeare’s big-hitters? That’s the question I sat down with. But, the play argues, that sort of question isn’t really the point. If the mark of a brilliant production is its ability to make you sing in front of strangers, to make you re-evaluate the way you live your life, to look around at the natural world with a newfound sense of possibility – then this is undoubtedly a triumph.
Directed by Paul Hart, “As You Like It” runs from the 24th June – 24th July at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury; tickets for socially-distanced, outdoor performances are available via https://www.watermill.org.uk/as_you_like_it