That famous line, ‘all the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players’, is voiced by Jaques in As You Like It, and yet it seems that in The Festival Players’ production, as in Shakespeare’s time, all the men and women are merely men. Confused? That’s half the fun.
With much of the action set in the Forest of Arden, the play lends itself extremely well to an outdoor performance, and this small-scale but extremely hard working and experienced all-male theatre company are busy touring both this production andHenry IV in an exhausting 75 venues until early September.
The quintessential romantic comedy sees fraternal strife lead to Duke Senior, Orlando and Rosalind exiled separately to the forest, where Rosalind, played by Benjamin Way, takes on the disguise of a young man called Ganymede and then bumps into her beloved Orlando. Joel Daffurn, as Orlando, is a suitably soppy, poetry-writing romantic who woos Ganymede in a vain attempt to cure himself of his love for Rosalind. The irony of the play lies in the fact that Orlando does not realise he is really wooing his beloved Rosalind, and the all-male cast adds to the irony. There are some stand-out performances. Mark Spriggs is a wonderful Touchstone whose crotch-grabbing entrance will stay with me for a while, and Joel Daffurn’s vocal performance is undeniably gifted. However, Paul Giles as the dryly comical Jaques, Orlando’s ruthless brother Oliver, and the amorous shepherdess Phebe is particularly excellent. Every part he plays is both convincing and engaging, and his impression of Spriggs’ Touchstone is inspired.
In his speech, Giles’ Jaques goes on to say that ‘one man in his time plays many parts’, and so they do in this production. Six actors play all the rôles between them, with the some hilarious doubling. One quick change for Daffurn sees him morphing from the lustful goatherd Audrey to the lovesick Orlando. She runs off stage having just been kissed and returns as a somewhat dishevelled Orlando, busy wiping his mouth. The males playing females are, without exception, comical. They overact in a delightfully camp way, and are not in the least believable as real women, but that is where the humour lies. It would be interesting to see this cast play tragic female rôles to judge their ability to pull off more serious scenes.
Michael Dyer’s desire to produce the play in the spirit of Renaissance theatre mostly pays off. The simplicity of the production is a refreshing change in a theatrical world that is so regularly preoccupied with originality and clever experimentation that it sometimes just becomes gimmickry. The Festival Players’ set design is rudimentary and the costumes are simple but effective, lending themselves well to all the quick changes.
The use of a single acoustic guitar complements the idea of simplicity that the company is going for, but it is a shame that, with the Shakespearean essence present in the costumes and all-male cast, they could not use a more fitting instrument, such as a lute. However, the music composition is inspired. Johnny Coppin’s melodies are both appropriate and entertaining, making Shakespeare’s often difficult lyrics more pleasant on the ear, as well as exceedingly memorable. Some audience members were even singing along by the epilogue.
There is nothing particularly astounding about this production and on this occasion there were a few moments when the actors stumbled over their lines, which was disappointing, but in such an exhausting tour you can perhaps forgive them a few off days. Nonetheless, it is an entertaining evening and would be a wonderfully accessible introduction to Shakespeare for those who want to avoid the gimmicks.
Three and a half stars
I saw As You Like It at the mac, Birmingham on 27th June 2015
Originally written for http://www.thereviewshub.com and reproduced here with their permission