Note this is one of two reviews for the same show due to a double booking error!
Outdoor theatre? In England? At the tail end of summer? Really? With the pandemic constantly asking us to re-evaluate and adapt, I nevertheless made my slightly sodden way to the New Normal Festival for a unique evening of Shakespeare under the stars (or what I could see of the stars in London’s light-polluted skies).
Originally this piece was set to be the final year showcase for the actor-musicianship and actor BA Honours students of the London College of Music. Of course, that sadly had to be cancelled due to everyone’s least-favourite travelling virus. Thankfully, Rachel Heyburn has resurrected the production and given the students a chance to share their creation with the world: if only every drama school graduation class were so lucky.
The New Normal Festival, organized by Sean Turner (Associate Director of The Play That Goes Wrong), brings together many productions that have been similarly affected by ‘the dreaded Rona’, supporting this and other shows who missed out on going to the Edinburgh Fringe or The Vaults festival. Think of him as the theatre’s fairy godmother sprinkling much-needed hope in these dark times.
Set in the courtyard of the gothic edifice that is Wandsworth’s Royal Victoria Patriotic Building (an orphanage for girls affected by the Crimean war and built in 1859), the whole affair looks more like a mini-festival, all under the sprawling boughs of a giant (real) tree. Food is provided by Le Gothique, the french restaurant that normally occupies the space, and there is a covering set up for part of the audience (sadly not my section).
What could be a more perfect setting for big Will’s As You Like It?; a pastoral romp in the Forest of Arden, filled with fools, wit, wrestling, gender-bending, cross-dressing and enough love to make you sick. Truly, this is one of the great successes of site-specific theatre!
So we gather, “fools in a circle” as the melancholy Jacques puts it, for the first night of live theatre many of us had seen in months. It’s just that rain, not tears, pouring down my face I assure you.
Some of the students really burn in the cool London night, breathing a natural vitality into the heavy language that will take them far in the industry. Dominic Hyam playing Orlando, our strapping hero, really endears with his rather predictable plummet into love. In balance to this, Rosie Malone’s Rosalind has much bite and sass as one of Will’s most interesting female leads. Another successful casting choice throws up Miles Griffin as Jacques, who is arguably the most quoted character in Shakespeare’s works (“All the world’s a stage” etc.). Having him played as a swaggering, effeminate, epigrammatic fellow is refreshing, as the character is sometimes relegated to being a blustering old man. Lastly, George Verghis as the banished Duke Senior provides a clean acting backbone and wonderful projection in the open air that at times swallows up some of the other actors’ dialogue.
Suzanne Bell’s costumes are disappointingly vaguely modern, and the re-contextualisation needs some clarification. The production, like many site-specific ones, relies rather heavily on its amazing setting and lets some things fall because of it. Although the live music is entertaining I would have loved more of it, as these were the moments that really sang out (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Yet overall Rachel Heyburn’s direction deals elegantly with the restrictions imposed by Covid-19, and the wrestling scene where both actors wear gloves and masks is a clever solution to a limiting problem.
Sadly the cold did get into my bones a little, but nevertheless the event serves as an admirable example of the creativity and inexhaustible ingenuity of this industry and the people within it. LONG LIVE THEATRE is all I can say!
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Rachel Heyburn
Produced by: The New Normal Festival
Booking Until: Event now complete