Before the play begins, the audience of Buskins’ production of As You Like It are escorted away from the elegant buildings and well-kept lawns of Worcester College, down passageways and across bridges, into a woody clearing of the College gardens, which serves as the stage for Shakespeare’s comedic venture into the pastoral. It begins, lightly, to rain. Umbrellas are flirted with but given up on. The audience, like the court of the banished Duke – Rosalind, Celia, and Orlando, must adapt to the environment of the Forest of Arden, simple, wild, and laden with possibilities.
Another striking choice is the all-female cast. The director, Charlotte Fraser, wanted ‘a means of providing more roles for the female talent in Oxford,’ and this has certainly been an enormous success. Not only do we have an appropriately witty and charming Rosalind in Clemi Collett, and Claire Dowman as a deliciously sardonic Celia, the audience is also treated to accomplished performances of the play’s many male characters. Ellie Wade brings hilarity and originality to Touchstone; Madeleine Herbert incites both amusement and sympathy as melancholy and self-consciously intellectual Jaques. Aoife Cantrill’s dorkily besotted Orlando has an endearing naivety, creating a far more interesting, appealing, and amusing take on the character than the vast majority of actors – male or female – could manage. This not only demonstrates the formidable talents of Oxford’s female actors, but also illustrates the directorial claim that casting has ‘shed more light on the piece than [they] could have imagined,’ as it gives an intriguing twist to the play’s treatment of gender roles, and to the androgynous figure of Rosalind-as-Ganymede.
The cast deliver the well-worn lines of the play – ‘All the world’s a stage…’ etc. – with a freshness and inventiveness that makes them seem new and revelatory, as if they were spontaneously extemporised. This is a real indication of how well-realised the characters are, small parts like Charles and Le Beau just as much as larger ones like the play’s feisty and fiercely intelligent heroine.
The production is so engaging the audience would likely have neither noticed nor minded had there been a sudden downpour, but maybe bring a raincoat just to be on the safe side. Get to Worcester early to get seats near the front – otherwise, you may have to contort yourself into a variety of sitting and kneeling positions to get a good view. If you like Shakespeare, go and see this play. If you are in love, go and see this play, ideally with the object of your affections in tow. If you like plays, go and see this play. Sweet, hilarious, and moving, it honestly is an absolute must-see.