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Summer Shakespeare Review: As You Like It

Published: Sat 3 Feb 2007 04:54 PM
As You Like It
Wellington Summer Shakespeare 2007
Directed by Jim Vilé and Sue Rider
The Dell, Wellington Botanic Garden
2 – 17 February
7.30pm Tu, Wed, Fri, Sat; 3.00pm Sat, Sun (No 3pm on 3rd Feb)
3hrs approx., including 30 minute interval
$20 / $15 / Family $38 / 15 years and under free
For its 25th production, Wellington's Summer Shakespeare has returned to what some consider its natural location - The Dell at the Botanic Garden. And it has given us the kind of entertaining ensemble production that seems to be the Summer Shakpeare's goal.
As You Like It follows various youths as they flee repression at court to discover freedom, love and some typically Shakesperian cross-dressing among the trees of the forest of Arden. Given that the botanic garden itself is an idealised natural retreat for city-dwellers, and that the backdrop to this production is a lot of very real trees - with the addition of a few flats and a platform to the Dell's existing stage - the play is well suited to the space.
The outdoor location also means you will need to dress for the conditions - and for evening performances that means night-time temperatures.
The production opens with ninjas. If you're wondering what ninjas have to do with the play described above, you won't be much the wiser for seeing the production.
Shakespeare did not seem especially scrupulous as to the location of his action (the text, for example, mentions palm trees in the forest). Overall, the costuming of this production reflects that - a mixture of more or less modern dress chosen to show the position of the character, from fomal or luxurious to clowny, with the interesting choice of paramilitary gear for the forest's court-in-exile. This does not, however, justify ninjas in black ninja outfits and white traing gi.
Wrestling, on the other hand, is written into the script, and the production is happy in the inclusion of a bout of pro wrestling, complete with masks and bodysuits. Improv guru Keith Johnstone has said that Theatresports was inspired by the popular theatre that is pro wrestling. Simply importing it into Shakepeare is, admittedly, a different approach, but this production's wrestling bout does have some of the shameless excitement Johnstone was trying to capture.
The fight was choreographed by Kiwi Pro Wrestler Matt Wilson, who also particpates as the Duke's champion Charles. During an earlier scene Wilson showed off a – I assume – wresling-based performance style, openly working the audience as he spoke.
Outdoor performances pay for their scenery by being vulnerable to distractions – low-flying aircraft, noisy neighbours or weather conspire against the attention of the audience. The cast's bold playing style meant that our attention was swiftly won back.
It also works well in a play peopled almost entirely by the simple, clear characters one might expect in a pastoral comedy – noble, physically powerful heroes, virtuous maids, wise old folk, bad bad guys and entertianingly simple peasants. These, if they change at all, change completely in a moment of revelation. The style also suited their overall level of experience in the cast, and if some of the subtleties of the comedy may have been glossed over the important points and the comedy they bring with them were hit loud and clear. There is more than one instance of love at first sight in the play, and these were hilariously obvious.
And it's worth noting the fact that, not only did the audience seem to follow the detail of the play (for example, even the clown Touchstone's first joke – a rather involved dig at a knight and his honour – was generally appreciated) but to the actors' credit we could actually hear all of the words.
Scattered in amongst all the brazen plot devices and arbitray loves of the pastoral comedy – and a number of well-executed songs – are few more serious moments. Characters argue for or against love (with varying degrees of sincerity) or debate personal freedom and personal security that in this playing style seem almost dialectical. Perhaps it's just my personality, but I think it's these that will stay with me the longest.
*******
Summer Shakespeare website (poster and info)
Meridian Energy Summer City Programme (PDF)

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