Known for its pastoral delights, this quirky Shakespearean comedy is played out inside the gardens of St Paul’s Church, slap bang in the centre of an eternally-busy Covent Garden. To stage this type of drama in these surroundings is a happy idea, but the idea would no doubt be a happier one without rain.
Needless to say, we are well looked after. All members of the audience are offered plastic sheets to sit on and plastic ponchos to don, while the presence of the odd gazebo and a well-established tree go some way into providing shelter from the English summer.
The weather aside, this is a masterly revival by director Daniel Winder and his Iris Theatre aides. Perhaps the most enchanting aspect of this production – presumably made possible by Musical Director Raphael Hurwitz – is the recurring and clever use of song. Those lyrics penned in the play are sung well by all members of the dramatic group, especially soloist-in-chief Christopher Rowland as Amiens, who, accompanied by his acoustic-guitarist attendant, provides most of the evening’s soundtrack.
As one scene follows another, so too do the audience follow the players from one part of the garden to another, serenading us as we go, only switching from song to speech when all members of the audience are sitting/standing, primed for the next scene. It’s a splendid touch, especially the final rendezvous inside the church for the closing ceremony.
The opening is suitably full-on – the younger brother’s response to the fate of primogeniture. There’s general discord, violent confrontations, and a superbly choreographed wrestling match. The Court scenes all take place in front of St Paul’s, with a double-door façade for a backdrop. The costumes, perhaps best described as sort of Victorian with a bit of mock-Elizabethan thrown in, are comical if questionable. There’s the seemingly tyrannical Duke Frederick, with his penchant for sending all and sundry into exile. But for those dispelled, it doesn’t take long to realise that they have been banished to a better place.
That place is the Forest of Arden, a land of liberty in which love and romance flourish, and cross-dressers roam. The many declarations of romantic love are playful and serene, even while those arguments against the plausibility of love at first sight are reeled off with almost slap-dash cynicism.
Arden is conceived under the boughs of a tree, with lanterns hanging from its branches and a wooden seat surrounding its trunk. Wicker archways mark the exit and entrance, and thick rope coils the ground to mark out the balloon-shaped stage area. In such a setup, there could be an issue with audibility, but to the testament of the actors and the director, there is never a word lost or misheard. Speech and diction are near perfect, and the language is spoken with clarity and humour.
Heather Johnson is sparkling as the love-struck shepherdess Phoebe. All flounce and fun, she plays the part with just the right dose of whimsicality and fiery warmth. John Harwood is formidable in his roles of Adam/Corin. His kindly Adam is particularly fine. Un-showy, but a scene-stealer nonetheless, he has an air of solidity about him. Meanwhile Diana Kashlan’s Touchstone – the out-of-Court but never off-duty jester – is half inebriated, half psychotic. Her spaced-out, wide-eyed expressions are always contorting, grimacing. She sets herself up successfully as the fool in touch with his affections, and with her multi-coloured motley attire, snatches many laughs from the audience.
It’s all very well done. This is a startlingly impressive production – a very entertaining walk around a churchyard. Highly recommended.
Performed at the Actors Church until the 4th August.