For an enthralling evening of Shakespeare with an unusually Gallic flavour and a fair amount of exercise thrown in, Creation Theatre’s As You Like It in Lady Margaret Hall’s idyllic gardens is hard to beat.
Director Tom Littler, inspired by the play’s numerous French references and the idea of an oppressive court ruled by a despot, has set his As You Like It in Nazi-occupied Paris. Guests are met at the door by sentries and those escaping Duke Frederic run away to the Arden Forest, where their Deux Chevaux breaks down and they play boules and brandish baguettes. The Duke himself, whose oversized portrait graces the court wall, sports a Gestapo-style haircut and circular glasses - though thankfully the leather jacket has been dispensed with and the flags, though evocative, don’t actually bear swastikas. Some of the funniest scenes are in French, with comedian Touchstone battling to get the play back on track and in English! Indeed, Morgan Philpott’s Touchstone is superbly played and we were also particularly lucky to have the Acting Bishop of Oxford in the audience, whom he hauled out with much comedy to act as a priest in the mock marriage between Touchstone and Audrey. (The Bishop, incidentally, proved an excellent sport and added his own superbly timed humour to the farcical scene.)
Evidently the product of a huge amount of hard work, the play’s set ranges across the magnificent and extensive gardens of LMH, with three separate sets and the natural backdrop of the ‘forest’. The audience is led from set to set by the actors with a fair amount of slapstick and a great deal of enthusiasm, though the gardens really are huge so those with mobility issues should be warned. Directions and warnings in French grace the garden and use is also made of the river Cherwell and a college boat. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for this play and as evening approaches the tranquil garden with its impressive mature trees makes an absolutely perfect forest, even if a silent Paris is slightly less convincing. The lighting and sound also deserve top mark: the train noises at the station - you didn’t know there was a station? - are perfect and there are some superb slapstick tossed-goat sounds; the lighting towards the end of the play, with the judicious use of fireworks, is also wonderfully atmospheric.
Of the actors, Jonathan Oliver, who plays two dukes, a shepherd and a goatherd, is certainly the most versatile, managing to be utterly convincing in all four roles and exuding just the right amount of menace, dignity, or bucolic idiocy according to the scene. Rhiannon Sommers is a particularly delightful Rosalind, whilst Joe Eyre as the love-struck Orlando is superbly sweet and comic, even if he doesn’t honestly look to have a future as a wrestler. Nick Trumble, the champion wrestler (and shepherd and farmhand) on the other hand does a superb display of hubris in the fight scene. Timothy Allsop makes an ideal Oliver, though his parallel role as a fugitive Jewish writer is slightly confusing and not altogether convincing. Julia Goulding as Celia is the perfect foil to Rosamund and a hilarious car crash victim.
All in all, this is a superb production, highly professional as always with Creation Theatre, the actors word perfect and the setting exquisite.