There are a number of professional companies who tour the UK during the Summer months, performing Shakespeare in a variety of locations which are often open-air and so subject to the rigours of the British weather. Principal among these is The Festival Players, based in Gloucestershire, who have been on the go for over 20 years. I caught up with their latest offering, As You Like It, on their annual trip to St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith.
It may sound an unlikely venue but, tucked away alongside the A4, this is a little oasis of greenery, albeit one on the flight path to Heathrow. On pretty much the first day of good weather on their tour so far, and despite the frequent intrusion of non-Elizabethan transport passing overhead, this delightful setting proved near-perfect for a trip to the Forest of Arden.
It’s all very much in the spirit of Shakespeare’s time, with the troupe travelling from town to town, setting up a trestle stage and making the most of the simplest means. Running at about two hours, Michael Dyer’s production is fast and furious, with a cast of just seven, necessitating some lightning changes of character.
It’s become quite common to do all-male productions of Shakespeare’s gender-bending plays. Seeing a boy playing a girl playing a boy (playing a girl at times in this one) is a bit like looking into a mirror that’s reflected by another mirror, ricocheting into eternity. It can be an effective way of adding dimensions to these characters, although female members of Equity may not quite see it that way.
Matthew Schmolle is an energetic Orlando and David Lee-Jones a winsome Rosalind but neither gets away with just that, having to play at least two other contrasting characters as well. Like all the players, they bring off this multiple casting with elan.
Andrew Holloway sings sweetly and is a convincing Celia. Sindre Nilsen impresses as Charles the Wrestler and has a side-splitting entrance as Jaques de Boys in the closing scenes of the play. Martin Tooms and Alan Christopher bring maturity and experience to an otherwise youthful cast. The latter makes the most of Touchstone, although his work is cut out with one of the unfunniest clowns Shakespeare wrote.
This talented line-up of actors play instruments as well as act and there’s an original score of jolly tunes (audience participation required at times) by Johnny Coppin. A fiddle-playing Jaques (Paul Russell), the morose philosopher, may well be a first.
This highly-enjoyable ensemble piece romps its way around the UK, playing in all sorts of unusual locations, until 27 August (details at thefestivalplayers.co.uk).