It was absolutely deafening. Conversation died as the winds ripped up and theatre-goers clung to their picnic hampers as they turned to look: a black Chinook attack helicopter, the kind I’ve only ever seen in movies, was taking off from the park, just the other side of the tree-line. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is just a few hundred yards from the American Ambassador’s residence, and when Donald Trump took off to go to a swanky dinner at Blenheim Palace, about five minutes before the show started, we all knew about it.
We were warned that if the President returned, the play would have to pause until the noise abated – thankfully he stayed away, and we were able to enjoy the play uninterrupted, in the gorgeous surroundings of the park at dusk. It felt like an uncomfortably appropriate prologue to the story of people fleeing a capricious, wrestling-obsessed tyrant into an idyllic forest, to forget about politics and think about love.
As You Like It has all the classic ingredients of a Shakespearean comedy: an exiled duke, cross-dressing lovers, a fool, puns that barely made sense in the 16th century, and moments of poetry and drama that remind you why this guy is still Top Playwright. Starting out in the oppressive court of the usurper Duke Frederick, all our principle characters are quickly exiled into the Forest of Arden where, after an initial adjustment period in which they find themselves homeless and starving to death, they are welcomed by the exiled Duke Senior, and get down to the main business of the play: making woo.
At the core of the play are the scenes in which Rosalind, disguised as the boy Ganymede, teaches her lover Orlando how to seduce her – him still imagining that she’s back at the court. It’s fantastic dialogue, and charmingly delivered by Olivia Vinnall and Edward Hogg in Max Webster’s production. Danny Kirrane as Touchstone manages to pump laughs out of some frankly baffling jokes, and Margaret Beattie is captivating as the melancholic Jaques, the one character in the play who seems justifiably fed up with all these young lovers ruining what used to be a perfectly nice forest.
Webster’s staging is clear and effective – the court of Duke Frederick is presented as an ecological disaster zone strewn with litter, all of which is cleaned up in the interval to present the green idyll of the forest of Arden. And the music from former Noah And The Whale frontman Charlie Fink is great, with fantastic singing particularly from Me’sha Bryan.
Beyond this ecological message, the production’s approach to the potential ambiguities of the story is fairly uncomplicated: the forced marriage of the shepherdess Phoebe to basically her stalker is presented rather more happily than it could be. But it doesn’t matter too much when you’re here. It’s hard to imagine a better theatre for this play than the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where the lighting design incorporates an actual sunset and the musical accompaniment has to make room for the sound of wood pigeons settling in for the night.
At Regent’s Park station, we mingled with protestors returning from their vigil outside the embassy; a reminder that our little holiday from the grim realities of the world was over. But it was nice while it lasted.
As You Like It is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until July 28th. For more details, click here.