Alice Roberts reviews
As a member of the crowd filing into the Barron theatre on a cold, winter evening, I can attest to a distinct feeling of anticipation in the soon-to-be-audience. There are always expectations when going to see Shakespeare, and watching any of the plays isolated from his grand literary persona is a near impossible task. However, the minimalist set and intimate stage of Mermaids’ production of As You Like It had a certain freshness, adding another layer to what was already an entertaining comedy.
Indeed, the play was living proof that time can in fact ‘gallop’ – evidence of the hypnotic effect of theatre; several audience members (myself included) left the play wondering where the last two hours had gone. The suspension of disbelief created by Director Benji Bailey was really quite remarkable, and for the duration of the play, a convincing bubble of pastoral Britain was held on the scratched black stage floor and impassive walls. This is possibly due to the unaffected nature of the production; I heard from a cast member that Bailey actively avoided using symbolism or any sort of complex imagery, allowing Shakespeare’s words and the actors’ talent to speak for themselves.
The costuming choices added to this natural atmosphere. Aside from the co-ordinated suits, it seemed almost as if the actors had arrived in their own clothes (albeit with a slight 1930s theme), creating an unusual mix of traditional and modern elements. Originally, Shakespeare’s plays were said to have been performed in contemporary dress; Bailey does not shy away from thistradition, which has produced some spectacular results—namely Mattia Marrioti’s brilliantly costumed Touchstone. The multitude of accents was another successfully modern aspect of the play, re-affirming the cosmopolitan nature of St Andrews students.
Another interesting feature was the proximity of the audience to the actors; there were times when Celia and Rosalind sat almost in line with the front row. The arrangement of the audience along two sides of the stage (at right angles to each other), some with the stage lights shining on them, had the effect of further dissembling the fourth wall. Having the other audience members in as clear of a view as the actors was an interesting experience, and worked well with the playful nature of the performance. The slightly surreal aspects of the play were also drawn attention to through the dramatic entrance of the God Hymen and use of music. Breaking into song half way through a scene can be a very difficult move, but the use of a piano (supposedly in the middle of the woods) and the confidence with which the piano was played were entirely effective.
However, there was also a suggestion of the tragic within the comedy. The first scene of the play left open the possibility of either, the sense of a road with two paths that could equally be followed. The inclination towards comedy was established soon after this, but a melancholy aspect still resided in the play through Nishant Raj’s portrayal of Jacques.
Overall, the innovative directing and strength of acting led to a natural and multi-faceted performance, with traditional and modern costumes, themes, and styles skilfully woven together.