AS YOU LIKE IT in the gardens of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

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To tell you the truth, once I didn’t like it. My English teacher spent an entire year instilling our A-level English literature class with a deep love for A Streetcar Named Desire, then, three weeks before the exams, she casually mentioned that we also really needed to know As You Like It. A coursework-frazzled and coffee-addled seventeen-year-old me spent the final few weeks trying to disentangle Duke Frederick from Stanley Kowalski, and it was then that I vowed never to have anything more to do with As You Like It if I could help it.

Fast forward several years and it’s Shakespeare season. A friend has bought tickets to see As You Like It at one of the Oxford colleges. Rather than turn her down, I go along to give it another try, and to my delight discover a joyous play, which includes some of Shakespeare’s finest writing, as well as arguably one of his best heroines. Skip forward again to a few weeks ago. Obviously, when asked to review Creation Theatre’s production of As You Like It, I jumped at the chance to see it again, particularly in the lovely setting of Lady Margaret Hall gardens.

The setting is very important in this production. The director, Tom Littler, has chosen to set the play in Nazi-occupied France during World War II – Duke Frederick is a Nazi-collaborator, while the exiles in the woods are the French resistance. This clever interpretation gives an interesting, modern dimension to the play, and of course, the costumes are fabulous. The first act is performed in various parts of the garden, forcing the audience to rush from one part of the garden to another to catch every bit of action (not a hard walk, but I do recommend comfy shoes!). This stroll around the beautiful gardens, through the woods and by the river, makes the audience feel involved in the action, as if we’re part of the banished Duke Senior’s band of exiles.

Along with a marvellous use of space, Littler gets a lot of work out of a small number of actors! I found myself slightly surprised to only count eight actors at the final bow. Lots of movement and costume changes must have taken place to make the audience feel that we were watching a cast of fifteen. Rosalind’s cross-dressing is already one of the main sources of comedy in As You Like It, but Jonathan Oliver’s portrayal of simpering Audrey raised some of the heartiest laughs of the night.

I was particularly struck by Timothy Allsop as the melancholy Jacques. I’ve only seen this character played for laughs before, but Allsop managed to pull out all the pathos of Jacques’ character as a fugitive Jewish writer. This character worked extremely well as a foil to Touchstone’s exuberant nature (Morgan Philpott must have had immense fun in the role of Touchstone the fool).

All in all, this was a wonderful romp in the woods; just as Shakespeare himself would have liked it. Bring a blanket and good shoes!   ★★★★★    @BookingAround      31/07/15