I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - anyone thinking of staging open air theatre in this miserably sunless country must be mad. The prospect of huddling under a poncho and umbrella for several hours of an evening was not enticing, I will readily admit. But the cheery sounds of a recorder, guitar and fiddle, calling “Come hither” under a thickly-canopied tree, soon warmed the sodden cockles of my heart: Iris Theatre’s As You Like It kept up enough enthusiasm and good humour to see its audience through the rain. As You Like It is a lighthearted piece of comedy, full of frolicks, fights and cross-dressing, perfect for a tour around St Paul’s church gardens, and funny enough to appease me through the nasty weather.
As You Like It is a tale of disguise, cross-dressing, and the charms of country life over urban life. The Duke Frederick has usurped his brother Duke Senior and banished him from court. He then banishes Senior’s daughter Rosalind, who flees in disguise as a boy with her cousin Celia and the jester Touchstone. Meanwhile, Orlando, denied his inheritance by his baddie older brother, falls in love with Rosalind. He, too, flees for the forest, warned that his brother is plotting against his life. In the Forest of Arden, Rosalind meets Orlando, still pretending to be a boy, and tricks him into a bizarre plan to rid him of his love. All becomes suitably convoluted with the addition of two more marriage plots between a shepherd and Phoebe and between Touchstone and the very-obviously-in-drag Audrey, before Rosalind orchestrates a happily-wed ending and Duke Frederick revokes his banishment.
It’s a delightfully complicated romp, and, unfortunately, the fact that some of the actors play multiple characters - Matthew Mellalieu playing both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, for example, or Christopher Rowland playing three very similarly-dressed young men - adds to the confusion. Aside from that, Iris Theatre’s production, while it takes a gamble on the weather, doesn’t take too many risks with this script. It uses period costumes - including lush dresses, makeup and wigs for Rosalind and Celia, and elaborate jester suits for Touchstone - as well as the play’s original dialogue. This is not necessarily a negative: sometimes modernisations just don’t work or aren’t necessary to make Shakespeare enjoyable. Instead, As You Like It capitalises on the play’s inherent comedy: scenes including the jester Touchstone are played purely for laughs, which were clearly heartily enjoyed by younger members of the audience. Diana Kashlan (Touchstone) steals the show with her rolling eyes and frenetic antics, proving that jesters can still be very funny even to a modern audience. Emily Tucker as Rosalind also sparkles, cheekily manipulating her Orlando and orchestrating a series of hilarious misunderstandings.
The open-air theatre concept leads audiences around several spots in the church courtyard, which mostly let the gardens themselves set the scene for a woodlands comedy. Most impressive was the huge, fairy-tale tree used for the scenes set in the woods: sitting on the grass under this idyllic green roof was the perfect setting while Duke Senior declares, “Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court?” emphasizing the freedom and simplicity of the forest. The use of Elizabethan-style songs were also a cheerful addition, and helped to lead the audience in a parade around the various garden settings. While I was glad to get back into the warm, dry church for the final scene, it was, all in all, an enjoyable night outdoors - one which I’m sure would have been even more magical in better weather!