St Paul’s churchyard in Covent Garden is the setting for Iris Theatre’s production of As You Like It and the joy of the play is the way in which the location resembles an inner-London Arden. The promenade-style performance leads the audience away from the bustle of the world beyond the gates and finally, for the wedding scene denouement, into the church itself.
Particularly effective is the backdrop to the first scenes in the forest. The audience cluster round a tree strung with paper lanterns as the light fades, the cast sing, and Orlando (Joe Forte) hangs love poetry on the branches. Tessa Battisti’s design works with the gardens entirely unobtrusively – each new setting a surprising discovery and those scenes that suit performance in the round (such as the wrestling ring at court) added greatly to this organic feel. Benjamin Polya’s lighting was introduced subtly as the natural light faded, leading up to the eerie atmosphere of the indoor Hymen scene, the church door transformed into the entrance of a cave, with the audience being led to the heart of a mystical landscape.
The success of the acting was more variable. In a company which trades on its youth and vitality, something Emily Tucker’s Rosalind embodied perfectly, the stand out performance was actually that of theatre veteran John Harwood, as Adam and Corin. His slower pace was not only in keeping with characterisation but seemed to give the language greater impact. Diana Kashlan’s Touchstone, however, while giving the piece a lot of comic energy, often did so at the expense of her lines, which lost meaning; she seemed more at home while responding to the speech of other characters, or adding in non-Shakespearean asides. On the other end of the spectrum there was a tendency to over-emphasise famous passages, a fault of which Tom Deplae as Jacques was particularly (if understandably) guilty. Fiona Geddes’ Celia was also a little over-expressive, in contrast with the more naturalistic Tucker, although her interpretation of Celia as more assertive than is often the case was refreshing.
This reflected a decision of director Daniel Winder’s to pay a lot of attention to the play’s apparent subversion of gender norms. Sometimes this worked well – Matthew Mellalieu’s cross-dressing Audrey was a favourite with the audience – but other quirks, such as Amiens’ (Christopher Rowland) suggested gender confusion, were more difficult to rationalise. The programme refers to the character of Orlando as ‘submissive, nurturing, emotional and easily manipulated’ – an apparent confutation of our gender expectations. But onstage Forte was not so much metrosexual as bland, an unconvincing match for Tucker, reduced to the role of a pretty face (or at least a pretty topless wrestler).
Overall the production was funny, charming and well-conceived. Design, music and direction all made the play consistently engaging and any quibbles with the acting were more than compensated for by the energy of the ensemble. The play seemed not so much a performance as a shared experience and it was one I would not hesitate in recommending to students who find themselves with a free (mild!) night in the capital.
THREE AND A HALF STARS
Iris Theatre’s production of As You Like It will be performed until 4th August at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, £14/10