Shakespeare’s romcom ‘As You Like It’ is having a bit of an outdoor theatre moment this summer: one production kicked off Michelle Terry’s inaugural Globe season, another has recently wrapped up a tour of London’s garden squares, and here it is again at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
Hardcore Bardolators may feel the need to collect ’em all, but I’d say this show from Max Webster is the strongest, and certainly a lot more enjoyable than the Globe’s bare-bones stab.
It kicks off really weirdly. The stage is strewn with litter, artificial rain is bucketing down, and the cast are singing a version of a song from ‘Twelfth Night’ that appears to have been arranged to the tune of Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ In the Free World’.
Why? I do not know why. It feels like we’re about to be on the receiving end of some sort of eco-parable, but Webster has not in fact attempted to rewire ‘As You Like It’ – essentially a play about people crossdressing in a forest – into a show about the sufferings of Mother Earth. However, the sequence is really quite thrilling in itself, and typical of a show in which each scene is bold, lucid, good-humoured and thought through, even if there’s no discernible concept behind the production as a whole.
Following that intro, the story begins in earnest with Edward Hogg’s thespy Orlando slaving away in a fast food restaurant. Persecuted by his spiv brother Oliver, Orlando heads to the court of Duke Frederick – here I guess a sort of local mob boss figure – falls in love with his daughter Rosalind (Olivia Vinall), fights his champion, Charles, and is promptly banished for his troubles, prompting Rosalind and cousin/BFF Celia (Keziah Joseph) to run off after him, with Rosalind disguising herself as a young man, Ganymede.
It is convoluted as hell, and probably didn’t make a whole lot more sense 400 years ago. But Webster keeps things vibrant, funny and polished, washing the action down with designer Naomi Dawson’s brightly drawn scenes and jaunty ’80s-style musical arrangements from former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink.
As the story moves on to the Forest of Arden, the conceptualising pretty much entirely dissipates, but strong performances and fast pacing keep it all ticking over. Danny Kirrane is scene-stealingly good as Rosalind’s surly, self-regarding servant Touchstone, Vinall is amusing as she sinks deeper and deeper into Ganymede’s increasingly laddish persona, and Maureen Beattie does some nice work as a buzzkill Jacques. I couldn’t quite get my head around the exact logic of Hogg’s wildly OTT delivery, but it was pretty funny. The entire, lengthy Arden sequence basically lacks an actual plot, but Webster and co just have fun with it. A sequence in which, apropos of nothing, a series of characters try rapping Orlando’s terrible love letters to Rosalind feels like it’s taking the piss out of Shakespeare as much as anything, and really, why not?
There are faults and inconsistencies, but it’s great fun, taking one of Shakespeare’s most amorphous plays and repeatedly hitting comedy gold. While the Globe seems to have temporarily abdicated on its old spirit of mischief, its older outdoor rival has merrily taken up the strain.