For many, a Shakespearean Freshers’ show would be too ambitious a move. For Theatre Group, it simply wasn’t difficult enough. They felt it necessary to add a ’70s twist, live music and even to change Orlando to Orlanda – and, as it turns out, As You Like It makes a lot more sense when everyone’s high.
This seventies-set forest adventure begins when the free-loving Duke (John Wilders) is banished from the court by his brother Frederick (Bram Stein), while his daughter Rosalind (Katherine Quinn) is allowed to stay with her beloved cousin Celia (Ella Hockings). That is, until she falls in love with Orlanda (Mazzy Westwood), and both Celia and Rosalind are forced to flee into the Forest of Arden. Joined by the alcoholic court jester Touchstone (Lewis Keen), and Rosalind disguised as a man with an infallible stick-on moustache, Theatre Group’s Freshers infused the intimate Annex Theatre with love, drugs and folk music.
Theatre Group confidently made this classic romantic comedy their own. Setting this story in the early 1970s, the era of sexual liberation and free love, was perfect for Shakespeare’s comedy of exploration and freedom from society, and was clearly and simply conveyed in the costumes and hairstyles.
All of the characters were portrayed by the cast with individuality and an obvious enjoyment in their roles. The skill with which these TG newcomers managed to convey the complexities of Shakespeare’s comedy was astounding. The grasp of the Shakespearean tongue never failed to impress, and the large and talented cast brought the characters to life and into the more modern setting with ease. Quinn especially shone as the play’s heroine, Rosalind, masterfully juggling comedy and sincerity; Hockings, as her cousin and close companion Celia, was a natural sarcastic sister-figure, and Westwood, as her love interest Orlanda, conveyed the character’s girlish infatuation wonderfully, her introduction at the wrestling match one of the comedic highlights of the play.
The relatively small stage was well used, as a whole forest was created with only a green light, some overhead banners of leaves and hanging flower baskets, and the occasional hay bale. The minimalist set design worked well to give the characters and action time to breathe, and to make set changes easier – although, with the live music that flowed from the wings at each set change, they seamlessly became a part of the marijuana-infused hippie camp of the Forest of Arden. The addition of live music throughout was also a wonderful part of the play’s atmosphere: Ellen O’Mahony’s performances, fairy-like and enchanting; the Duke’s folk band, a joyful and a seamless addition to the cast – they even provided the intermission entertainment, met with many a tapping foot and plenty of applause.
The comedic sequences were well-timed and well-received, drawing a steady stream of laughter from the audience. The melancholy Jacques (Thomas Cope) was one of the comedic focuses, bringing groans from the frustrated hippie gathering every time he opened his mouth, and his “the whole world’s a stage” soliloquy was superbly played for comedic effect. Isaac Treuherz’s comedically infatuated Silvius garnered plenty of laughs, with hyperbolic sighs and cartoonish love-mania. Keen’s Touchstone stole the stage any time he was on it, as he danced, drunkenly philosophised, or cleaned his belly button in the corner of scenes. His high-energy performance could, at times, take away from the main action, but was funny enough that no one seemed to mind.
Small physical comedy bits were seamlessly added to the play, using props and physical theatre to great effect, while the wrestling scene in the first act was so well choreographed I was scared for the fighters’ health. Another scene stood out in the second act between Rosalind and Phoebe (Phoebe Alicia Armstrong), lovesick for Rosalind’s male alter-ego, Ganymede, as their personalities clashed with quick wit, snarky insults, and gleeful grins from the on-stage onlookers.
All in all, an impressive Freshers’ production, with clever direction, simple and effective set design, and a talented cast that are sure to go on to further success in future Theatre Group productions.
As You Like It is on at the Annex Theatre as the Fresher’s Theatre Group Show from 29th November – 2nd December 2017. Doors open at 7:30 and tickets cost £6 for students, £5 for PA Society Members and £9 for adults.