Friday, 2 July 2021

REVIEW: As You Like It at the Watermill Theatre

Live Theatre is back and the Watermill Newbury which has quietly worked away to keep its venue open whenever it could throughout the pandemic again stages an outdoor season, but you can sense the air of change as soon as you arrive. As you like it is a perfect play for the time and the location on the back lawn of the venue. The temporary stage fashioned from recycled sets is backed by an evergreen hedge and the “babbling brook” runs down to the old mill behind the audience at tables across the lawn. We are transported to an eco-friendly world of The Forest of Arden.

This updated version (by Yolanda Mercy) of Shakespeare’s 1599 comedy is set in the modern-day and sharply contrasts the corporate commercial world of the Court in the first 30 minutes with the joyous celebration of a group of eco-warriors camping out and camping up (especially Tom Sowinski as the old servant Adam) amongst the trees. As we settle in our seats, we see Orlando, in overalls and protective gloves, clearing away the plastic bags and debris from the stage before the court arrives. It is a dry unexciting opening in which neither the Duke nor his brother Oliver seems scheming or evil enough as Orlando and Rosalind are banished from the Court. Only in the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles (Jamie Satterthwaite), which is wonderfully choreographed by Anjali Mehra, does the action and tension rise.

However, once the set (designed by Katie Lias) is transformed into the Forest of Arden and the “auditorium” becomes part of the scene, the show bursts into joyous life and the characters blossom and engage. Paul Hart’s signature technique of using actor-musicians underpins this adaptation by including short snatches of modern music played by the cast. I was not familiar with the songs, helpfully listed in the programme, such as Mumford and sons “Winter Winds”, and therefore was not always clear on their fit within the story although the music was clearly part of the original script too. But when Act II opens with an impromptu concert by Orlando singing “Sweet Caroline” reworded to Sweet Rosalind the concept brilliantly hits home to comic effect.

In the original play, five characters dominate the show with Rosalind having nearly twice the lines of each of Orlando, Jaques, Touchstone and Celia but in this version, it is the first two who stand out and provide a narrative thread to the story. Ned Rudkins-Stow (a regular at the Watermill) is magnificent as Orlando speaking the lines with wonderful clarity and precision and creating a likeable if slightly dim-witted eco-warrior who fails to recognise Rosalind in the slightest of disguises although does acknowledge late on that he thought he was “a forest born” brother to her! Katherine Jack is wonderful as Rosalind combining the hidden breathless love for Orlando and comic teasing of him in plain sight and engaging with the audience with her looks and asides, directing her complaint about “ill-favoured children” to the young man in the front row. She too gets to hammer home the message of change in the Epilogue while acknowledging that “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue” the speech has been rewritten to call for things to be done to protect the world before the cast burst into an uplifting conclusion reflecting on all the influences and debates of the last few years in “Set my soul on fire”.

In between the central love story, the adaption gives each of the ensemble a chance to shine. Jaques (here played as a sinister female in black and dark glasses by Emma Manton) delivers the most memorable speech about “all the world’s a stage” and man’s “seven ages” from amongst the audience connecting us all to the need to change. Touchstone (here played by Emma Barclay who starred in the Watermill’s One million tiny plays about Britain) has her moment with the marriage of Audrey and William, two minor characters reduced to puppets. There is good support too from Chanelle Modi as Celia as she falls in love with Oliver (Yazdan Quafouri) and Ami Okumura Jones as an animated Phebe who reluctantly agrees to marry Silvius (Omar Barboud).

Paul Hart’s strong direction, an elegantly adapted script, musical interludes under the direction of Tom Sowinski (which bring the young vibrant cast together and who look like they are enjoying themselves) and of course no rain, make this a perfect summer’s evening show. The call for change which echoes similar messages across the Theatre world is powerfully made and although the Watermill audience is perhaps the least ethnically and economically diverse group you will see, you have got to start somewhere and the rapturous applause at the end confirms that the message is received and supported as well as being a thoroughly entertaining evening.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★
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