Last night I spent a Summer’s evening amongst striped deckchairs and strawberries, at Grosvenor Park in Chester. I’d gone to see As You Like It. My expectations were somewhat mixed, because from outside the secluded, fort-like open air theatre, standing with the peasants in the park, the impression is of something quite unsavoury, almost like being at the back of a circus tent, or fairground. When I walked in, however, I was immediately transported. I was in a world of people sitting in deckchairs, or around the seating terraces, eating food and drinking glasses of wine that sparkled. I was in a world of soft blankets around people’s shoulders, hampers from Carluccio’s (included with the VIP ticket), strawberries and clinking plates. I was suddenly at ease, found a spot on the front row of the tiers, and settled into my meagre feast of strawberries, watermelon, and Pringles. As the pleasant hum of conversation, and picnic-clinking babbled merrily along in the soft evening sun, no-one noticed a man enter the stage, until he spoke. The audience was taken by surprise, mouths still full of pasta or, in one case, a carefully assembled Eton Mess, constructed from Tupperware with strawberries, ice-cream, and meringue in them. Suddenly the performance had started, whether we were ready or not.
The Guardian described this production as; ‘Idylic’, and The Stage; ‘nigh on faultless’. I can only reiterate those words. It was a blissful experience.
After the initial abruptness of the opening, when the audience were caught on the back foot, following the initial exchange between Orlando and Oliver, which felt absolutely fraternal, and something much more than just stage fighting, there was an intensity to the physical contact between the two actors that really felt like they were two brothers, the audience (I felt) was suddenly woken from the unsettled beginning by the startling entrance of Charles, the wrestler, played by Rob Compton. Like a bright light, this Sid Vicious character with punk hair and black leather came in with such energy (and David Beckham looks), it was a shot in the arm. He had wildness, a cockney accent, with a genuine blood-lust for his opponent, straight out of the Sex Pistols. As Rob Compton displays a much softer side in later scenes, as other characters, his ferocity in this scene is really impressive .
Only two things, for me, stopped the production being perfect. I wasn’t that keen on the stainless steel trees which are part of the set, and I think they would have worked much better in another material, perhaps more natural and realistic, even real trees. The metallic effect is contemporary and modern, but in the middle of such beauty and the greenery of the park on a summer night, with the real trees hanging over the walls, the unnatural hardness of the stainless steel felt, to me, ugly.
The other thing, the only other thing, is the use of jeans as trousers for the men, an unnecessary incongruity, which (for me) spoiled the otherwise perfect costumes, which were elaborate, luxurious, and looked absolutely lived-in, and well-worn, and looked like real clothes, rather than costumes.
During the first few scenes I was actually preparing for disappointment from some of the performances. In honesty, I was worried that some of the actors were going to be too weak to fill the shoes of previous productions that I’d seen. Rosalind didn’t immediately appear to have the adequate substance and inner-metal that the character requires, and felt a bit too much of a girl and almost insubstantial. Likewise, I didn’t feel Touchstone was ultra-quick-witted enough, compared with previous performances I’d seen, and he didn’t immediately seem to have the fast intelligence of the character, and instead felt a little bit petulant. However, I’ve only expressed these feelings because after the first couple of scenes the actors seemed to have overcome whatever unease they felt at the start, and had really sunk into the roles, completely allaying my fears. In the later scenes, they felt perfect.
One last niggle- I was disheartened that Le Beau, played by David Hartley, wasn’t French. A lot of the jokes and other characters’ lines depend on Le Beau being outrageously and humorously French, and the lack of a French accent meant that those jokes didn’t work, and were lost, which is a shame.
Orlando, played adorably by David Ricardo-Pearce, was a really refreshing revelation. He was quietly heroic, with a gentleness and softness, not aggressively masculine, which made for a really endearing portrayal of the character.
As Rosalind, played fantastically by Natalie Grady, transformed into Ganymede, she took on all of the gumption and substance that makes this female character an equal for the men. She had joyfully adolescent lasciviousness and lusty growls when away from the men, which ascended to a beautiful dexterity when manipulating Orlando, so that you felt she was a real match for him.
There were moments of pure, stomach-tickling comedy, of the kind that Shakespeare would have created in his day, and which are often lost nowadays on an audience that doesn’t really speak the language they’re listening to. One of these moments was created by Silvius, played by David Hartley. His anguished screams of; ‘Phoebe’ from outside the theatre, perfectly timed, and hilarious, made sense of the references to him by Corin and Rosalind, which have been lost in other performances I’ve seen.
The next remarkable entrance was by Jaques, played by Nicholas Asbury as a kind of drunken Rik Mayall figure with a Young Ones voice, who made his first appearance taking gulps of the drinks of the front row of the audience. His scene with the musicians, Rob Compton playing guitar, was absolutely uplifting, and their interaction was funny and heart-warming with pure joy.
Asbury’s interpretation of the famous ‘All the World’s a stage’ speech, perhaps one of Shakespeare’s best known, was delivered in a drunken and irreverent way, which made it lighter to experience, and refreshing, and not what one expects. However, he never lacked the weight and poignant intensity that that speech requires, but managed to be funny with it, although it could have had a little more depth of volume (perhaps ‘Boom’ is the right term). Nicholas Asbury is cockle-warming and effervesces with comedy, to the point where it becomes exciting to watch.
In these later scenes Touchstone, played by Paul-Ryan Carberry, really revels in the role, and comes into his own. If he started out a little weakly, in his later scenes, especially the verbal dual with Corin, he gave the character all the flourish and intelligence, and deep intensity of wit, that he so needs. Touchstone has a particular kind of personality, and Carberry captures it perfectly.
The other entrance that produced, actually, one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre, was by Phebe. I’ve played this character, and anticipated the portrayal in this production with baited breath, anxious that it should be done right. Phebe, played magnificently by Rosie Jones, entered the space running flat-out, with utter determination and a blazing conviction in her eyes which was so beautifully hilarious. If the expression ‘eyes ablaze’ should ever be used, it’s now. Rosie Jones, with that spunky northern fire perfected by Maxine Peake in her formidable female roles, played Phebe like one of the Furies. The speech where she’s describing Ganymede to Silvius, juxtaposing positives with negatives, grew and grew into a schizophrenic dichotomy, and she went from being torn between like and dislike, to a real mental tearing-apart, a meltdown. The performance was given so much energy, aggression, and passion, that the audience applauded, though with reluctant uncertainty because of overlapping the next character’s entrance, and the actors had to take a pause because the audience felt so compelled to give Rosie Jones commendation in applause.
The whole experience was just beautiful, from the perfectly English complexions of the women on stage, to the perfect pitching of the humour and music. It was enthralling, uplifting, dazzling to the eye, and absolutely warming to the heart. I can’t recommend it enough, as a complete experience.