As You Like It review at Open Air Theatre, London – ‘an easy, pleasing watch’
The opening scenes of Max Webster’s bubbly production of Shakespeare’s comedy suggest we might be in for an environmentalist take on the play.
Naomi Dawson, who recently created a pool surrounded by plastic detritus for the Royal Exchange’s production of Happy Days, has also designed a pool surrounded by plastic detritus for this production. The cast members casually discard their disposable coffee cups into the pool, adding to the pile-up of waste, as rain cascades from above. But this eco-theme evaporates once the characters leave Court for the Forest of Arden and the metallic curtain falls away to reveal ramshackle forest dwellings and a sea of trees.
From this point on the production quickly settles into its role as a (mostly) jolly forest romp. Characters swap their sleek urban outfits for battered jackets, matted dreadlocks and (for reasons unclear) baseball caps worn backwards.
Olivia Vinall is an amiable Rosalind, disguising herself as Ganymede by putting on a vest and baggy jeans and adopting an almost callously laddish manner as she pursues Edward Hogg’s Orlando. Danny Kirrane easily steals every scene he’s in with his wonderfully comic performance as Touchstone – his scenes with Amy Booth-Steel’s Audrey are a delight – and Maureen Beattie is a movingly contemplative Jaques, her voice full of experience and emotion.
Vinall handles the frantic tangle of lovers and subplots well and has a decent rapport with Hogg. Her outfit almost mirrors his, which adds an interesting layer to their encounters. But some of the intriguing ideas set up in the opening scenes are never developed or returned to, and there’s little digging beneath the surface of the play.
Make no mistake, Webster’s production is solidly entertaining. There are some strong comic performances, a rambunctious wrestling scene, some agreeable musical interludes care of former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink, beautifully sung by Me’sha Bryan, and Webster evidently revels in the verdant open-air setting.
The whole thing is exuberant and clear – an easy, pleasing watch – but it’s also relatively safe in its casting and directorial choices. On one hand it contains a higher number of laughs than this year’s gender-reversed version at Shakespeare’s Globe but it also lacks that production’s textual delicacy.
There are some weirdly jarring choices – Beruce Khan’s Oliver is violently blinded – as well as some lazy ones. Surely it’s time that the theatre equivalent of a swear-box was introduced for productions of Shakespeare that deploy Beyonce’s Single Ladies for the sake of an easy joke.
There are bold moments but what’s lacking is a sense of cohesion and connection between the two worlds of the play. The magic of the setting still casts its spell though.