Directed by Elise Davison for Taking Flight Theatre Company at Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. 14 June 2014.
Reviewed by Evelyn O’Malley
Taking Flight Theatre Company aims ‘to work with groups of people who have traditionally been under-represented in theatre’ (2014 online), creating inclusive performances and challenging perceptions of (dis)ability. This promenade production of As You Like It toured to parks and green spaces in Wales and the South West of England between May and July 2014.
Audience members congregate around a bandstand at Cyfarthfa Castle on a hot Sunday afternoon and a fun-fair segues into the start of the performance. I participate in a duck-race, fail miserably at the coconut shy, have my fortune told (by Madame Adam) and arm-wrestle with Charles, who is dressed in an orange onesie. Red, purple and orange bunting is draped from the bandstand and wrapped around trees, coordinating with Becky Davies’s anarchically designed costumes and contrasting with the greenness of the park.
A quirky interpretation of a familiar text keeps taking me by surprise. Duke Frederick hurtles down the hill on a wheelchair. Is this a mistake? He is coming so quickly? The brakes work well, though, and actor Ben Owen-Jones – as the tyrant Duke – is immediately busy organising the wrestling. I’m challenged, wide awake, and Orlando (played with passion by Connor Allen) is warming up for the match with Tai Chi. An enthusiastic running commentary describes the wrestling, blow for blow, which allows audio-description techniques to be woven seamlessly into the fabric of the performance text. Strong Welsh accents, articulate and playful performances are refreshing.
Rosalind, played by Alison Halstead, is half Orlando’s height – playful casting for a play that describes Rosalind as ‘more than common tall’ (1.3.112). Chain in hand, she crosses to Orlando and without breaking eye contact with him, climbs onto his bent upper legs, one foot at a time, takes hold of both hands and leans back in a counterbalance; ‘Wear this for me – one out of suits with fortune,/ That could give more but that her hand lacks means’(1.2.235-236). Charles recovers from defeat and plays romantic music on the flute. The moment is breath-taking, original and moving.
We follow Rosalind, Orlando and a group of musical, antlered animals into the Forest of Arden, which at this performance means venturing into wooded areas of the park. Anachronisms are celebrated as Orlando swings from a T-junction signpost and then from a tree. ‘Flight attendants’ show us the way and we learn a song to sing travelling from place to place.
Rather than simply describing the action, Sami Thorpe’s sign language Shakespeare is integrated into the performance. She becomes a satchel on Jacques’ back, choreographing her snail-like movements to a sung version of the ‘All the world’s a stage’ (2.7.140) speech. Thorpe is beautifully self-aware and comments on her own role within the performance. Celia requests that she negotiate with Corin and secure their home in the woods; ‘You do it. I’m signing!’ Thorpe quips, prompting laughter. Sign-language, Shakespeare, songs, audio-description and humour make this an accessible, inclusive and self-reflexive production.
Rosalind’s ‘Do you not know I am a woman, when I think I must speak?’ (3.2.242-243) line gets no response from the audience members around me. Perhaps, I hope, a line that relies so much on stereotypes becomes redundant in a production that otherwise so effectively challenges them.
Taking Flight’s As You Like It draws attention to the richness of difference and, in doing so, enlivens a well-worn text on a well-trodden path of summer Shakespeares under the greenwood.