The Corpus Christi Owlets have wrought a triumph in this promenade production of Shakespeare’s quintessential garden play, spearheaded by directors John Retallack and Renata Allen, and producer Frances Livesey. As part of Corpus’ 500th anniversary celebrations, I can’t think of a fitter way to celebrate the college buildings. The production gave ceaseless attention to its surroundings, right down to awareness of the sunset, with outdoor scenes restricted to daylight. The longest section was located in the auditorium, transformed by set designer Isabel Ion into a delicately rendered Forest of Arden, but around this the actors led us on a frankly lovely tour of the college’s highlights. No scene felt out of place, and the actors themselves were beautifully blocked and confident in making the most of the different spaces available to them, from playing in the cloisters to tree-planting in the garden.
The usual pitfalls of promenade, which can cause serious pacing issues, were cleverly incorporated into the production’s texture. The play eased into itself across several different locations then settled into the quicker pace of its dense, central Arden section, which remained in a single space until a satisfyingly appropriate move towards the end. The audience was initially split across two simultaneously performed scenes, which meant that we were able to hear the other scene happening a quad over. This also caused a slight timing issue, as one half had to wait for the other to finish. Both ‘problems’, however, added to the gently immersive quality of the production, which by the end of the first half had undeniably wrapped itself around my little finger.
Universally strong pace and diction set a high bar for this term’s contingent of Shakespeare, and assured projection meant that I didn’t miss a word. This assurance extended to the acting, which was again of a universally high standard. Seeing a mix of seasoned student actors, fresher faces, and Corpus stalwarts, including retired President Richard Cawardine as an impressive Duke Senior, was a refreshing reminder of the range of people and talent that makes up the life of the university.
Ben Thorne’s lovelorn Silvius was a quiet standout, while Hugh Tappin dispatched Oliver with aplomb and James Bruce as Jaques delivered a considered ‘All the world’s a stage’. Linda Kirk as Duke Frederick was great fun, matching imposing pomposity with disarmingly comic moments. Beth Evans’ Touchstone was an inspired casting that drew by far the most laughs, with a truly winning physical and verbal performance that included characterful improvisation. I was blindsided to hear that Evans has been down with tonsillitis for a week: her energy from start to finish was stunning. Completed by the talented Harry Carter, Touchstone and Audrey’s cross-gendered pairing was a fabulously camp antidote to some ponderous moments of over-seriousness as the play found its feet. Christopher Page and Molly Willett as Orlando and Celia respectively hit all the right notes in notably unselfish performances. Both have a knack for bringing out the best in those around them while engaging in sensitive, clever performances themselves.
But the stage, as it should, belonged to Rosalind. Georgie Murphy gave a performance that can only be described as virtuosic. Her hallmark elasticity onstage was controlled perfectly through every turn of plot, emotion, and gender. Comic scenes with Willett and Evans brought a delightful giddiness to proceedings, while her chemistry with Page was immediate, mature, and utterly compelling. Against such a masterclass, it is a remarkable reflection on the rest of the cast that Murphy was framed rather than allowed to dominate.
Final praise must go to the live band, under Katherine Pardee’s direction. Howard Goodall’s irresistible music was increasingly, magically interwoven with the action and performed to a professional standard. The songs were seamlessly incorporated, with beautiful vocal performances by Laura Coppinger and Albert McIntosh in particular. Several musicians also played character parts, which along with consistent and charming costumes, supported the play’s overall sense of harmony.
It is to be hoped that tonight’s high production value expands the horizons of this summer’s garden Shakespeare – but regardless of future impact, this was a delightful evening. Joyous at its core, the action was lovingly unfolded by a cast that feels committed and unified. Perhaps it was the free wine, but As You Like It left me with that rare combination of smiles and tears that Shakespearean comedy provides at its best.