Staging an open-air show during a summer as wet as this one was always going to be a challenge. Yet Iris Theatre’s outdoor promenade production of Shakespeare’s romantic pastoral comedy, As You Like It, still shines despite the rain.
The exuberant and energetic production transports its audience to the mythical Forest of Arden with enough ease that soon the horrendous ’emergency’ waterproof ponchos (thrust into every audience member’s hands immediately upon arrival) are almost forgotten. Almost. Though Daniel Winder’s production does its very best, it still falls short in places, much like the summer so far.
When Duke Frederick is banished, his daughter Rosalind flees the court’s corruption for the forest. Disguising herself as a boy named Ganymede, she embarks on a wild summer of homoerotic androgyny. Hidden behind her male guise, she is sexually empowered, and suddenly shy Rosalind becomes cheeky Ganymede as he/she persuades Orlando to woo her. Emily Tucker expertly balances the coy with the flirty, bringing warmth and vigour to the part. But Joe Forte seems to be there purely for aesthetics – impressive six-pack aside, his Orlando is oddly uncharismatic and it is left to Diana Kashlan’s Touchstone to keep the stage chemistry alight.
Theatre is at its most magical when it provides genuine escape and designer Tessa Battisti’s Arden is definitely a saving grace in this regard, a mesmerising place of transience and displacement. Set in the wild, overgrown garden of St Paul’s Church– known simply as the Actors’ Church – the bustle of Covent Garden may be but a stone’s throw away, but as soon as you step through the church gates, you are enfolded into Shakespeare’s mythical world. Battisti’s whimsical paper lanterns hang suspended from a giant tree, the church steps double as a confined court world and later the entrance to a dark and ominous cave, and the interior of the church itself adds a much-needed final flourish. This Arden feels like a state of mind: a timeless place where the characters wash up and indulge in warm midsummer fantasies.
Despite the three-fold distraction of rain, aeroplanes, and chatty audience members who seemed to think they were at a garden party, the promenade production has its charms even if there are moments when they seem to lose control of the plot. A confused second half was made worse by the pouring rain; the cast were forced to shout their lines over this noise and it was difficult for the audience to remain engaged. That said, the performers did their best to keep spirits up,shepherding the audience from space to space with energy despite the downpour. Winder embraces the performative aspect of the play, incorporating the cast’s orders to the audience into song (“Come hither!”, they trill). It’s strangely effective and irreverently tongue-in-cheek, especially when done with a megaphone.
For all the cast’s considerable efforts, though, it’s hard not to become impatient especially towards the end. Where the first half neatly sews together Shakespeare’s rapid vignette scenes, the charming woodland set is not hypnotic enough to uphold the masquerade for over two hours, and the penultimate scene in particular felt scattered and confused – though, again, this maybe because it was at that point, by and large, utterly pouring. By the final scene, it feels like welcome relief to leave Arden and return with the cast to the restored real world. Staged inside the warm (and dry) church, this last scene pulls the entire production together and is, of course, the perfect setting to exploit the play’s famous four-marriage ending.