First published in The Times, Thursday July 4 2019
Shakespeare’s great pastoral comedy is a gift for outdoor performance. Who needs elaborate stagecraft when you have trees and foliage and natural light? The last time Bard in the Botanics staged As You Like It – back in 2012 – the shift from the court of Duke Frederick to the Forest of Arden was achieved simply by moving the audience from one part of the gardens to another.
Gordon Barr’s new production, presented as part of the company’s “Muse of Fire” season, is just as understated, even if this time around it confines itself to a small stage at the back of the glasshouses. The designer, Carys Hobbs, achieves the rustic setting without strain, dressing the playing area with wreaths and floral arrangements that stand in contrast to the austerity and decadence of the opening scene in the usurper Duke’s (Alan Steele) court.
This disparity, between the serenity and reflection of the rural setting and the venality of the city, is key to Barr’s production. There is something of the alternative community about his version of Arden: the forest’s laid-back atmosphere exerts a quietening effect on the Duchy’s overwrought exiles.
In the past, Barr has adapted elements of the plays in order to emphasise important contemporary resonances. The insertion of the odd profanity aside, As You Like It remains largely intact, even if the performers are permitted the occasional knowing aside or adlib. Barr also has fun subverting our expectations by switching certain characters’ gender. Audrey, the buxom shepherdess, is now strapping Andrey (Simon Lembcke), whose attractions for Robert Elkin’s Touchstone are shown off in a very funny bathing scene.
Indeed, the 10-strong ensemble is full of engaging performances, from the appealing comic pairing of Stephanie McGregor and Kirsty McDuff as sidekicks Rosalind and Celia to Charlie Clee’s hopelessly lovelorn Orlando and Elkin’s uncompromising fool. The decision to cast Nicole Cooper, one of the company’s most consummate actors, in the role of Jacques, is a shrewd one. Her portrayal of the melancholy philosopher is warm and wry, at times hard-edged, and in the end rather moving, and she naturally relishes every word of the bard’s famous “All the world’s a stage” speech.