From Lanterns to Levellers
The first performance of this year’s Shakespeare in the Park took place last night at Maple Hayes Hall near Lichfield. The chosen play for 2017 was As You Like It, one of the Bard’s merry, jolly, uplifting rom-coms – and wow was it good!
The al fresco setting is just perfect, a secluded, quiet and reflective wooded area of trees in an area of land between Lichfield and Burntwood. The audience sits on bales of hay (I found them to be quite comfy…although a cushion is a good idea!) on a slope looking down on the ‘stage’ and lighting is provided by spotlights and all types of LED string lights and lanterns – as the sun goes down and dusk falls it looks truly magical.
SITP (in its acronym form!) started in 1983 at Wychnor Hall Gardens before moving to its current home at Maple Hayes in 1985 so is in its 34th year and this was the third time the company have performed As You Like It – Maple Hayes woods is a great choice for the location as William set the original play in the Forest of Arden in Warwickshire.
The weather was ideal with not a breath of wind, warm without being stifling and nothing to disturb the actors bar the birds’ dusk chorus and the odd (annoying…) high revving motorbike boy racer!
The story is classic comic Shakespeare: boy meets girl, falls instantly in love, girl runs away and takes up a disguise, boy chases after girl, someone else falls in love with girl, lots of misunderstandings ensue, clutches of comic characters (including the essential jester!) revolve around the plot before everything works itself out, it finishes with the happy couples marrying their ideal partners and all ends happily…well that is an abridged version of events but something like that!
The play starts with two warring sibling princes and the fight, wrestling and duelling scenes are dramatic, realistic and the ‘darkest’ part of the whole production. After that it’s pretty much a comic romp to the end however. There are lots of physical and word-play gags and a whole array of comic characters – David Stonehouse as the jester Touchstone, Ellie Galvin as Celia, Greg Spencer as Jacques (with a bewildering line in accents including Brummie!) Paul McEvoy as Corin the shepherd and Fiona Willimott as Audrey the goat herd are all great fun and provide lots of laughs – and there’s a nice little cameo from Ron Hughes as William, the love-rival for the hand of Audrey!
Hannah Davies as Rosalind, the main love interest, was excellent, it’s a challenging role to switch between a lady of the court to her disguise as a man of the forests but she handles both roles really well. The woman disguised as a man has a long history in British drama and comedy, from the pantomime prince and dame to ‘Bob…’ in Blackadder – I wonder if Shakespeare was the originator of this classic comedy gender reversal?
In the lead male role as Orlando, Rosalind’s beau, Patrick Jervis was as strong and professional as always – I’ve seen him in a number of varying roles this year and he always brings depth and character to each role – you definitely know he is not going to let you down.
But, as usual, the whole cast, leading and support, young and not-so-young, female and male were all excellent and it’s why I love amateur dramatic groups – they put their heart and soul into it and (take a look at the photos!) you can tell that they genuinely love every second of it and that enthusiasm and warmth comes from the forest floor, rises up and washes over the audience on the straw bales – they’re all first class.
The actors are dressed in a combination of clothes from across the eras – from the doublet and hose of Elizabethan times to the gold medallions and pointed shirt collars of the fashionably challenged 1970’s. Some Shakespeare purists may not like this but I thought it looked colourful and fun and added to the feel-good factor. The performance is also full of guitars, drums (ancient and modern) and some traditional and not-so-traditional songs – who would have thought you could have mixed Under the Greenwood Tree by the esteemed William Shakespeare Esq with a hit for the Levellers in 1997 (so we have the English Civil War thrown in for good (measure-for) measure!).
The play is directed by the ‘first-time-for-SITP’ Sarah Stanley, who is an experienced actor and director with the Lichfield Players. Apparently she was nervous about directing her first SITP – but she needn’t have been, it was a great, innovative, entertaining and truly satisfying performance with a great ovation at the close and the audience left happy, if not a bit saddle ‘bale’ sore.
She was backed up by an expert production team and also front of house and stewarding teams. As I said SITP has been running for over 30 years and has several people in the off-stage team who have given many years of loyal service – and this continuity of experience and knowledge clearly shows through – from the parking stewards to the ticket office, to the volunteers and helpers it all runs really smoothly like a well-oiled machine!
I blush to say that this was my first ever SITP and as a lover of amateur dramatics, Shakespeare, al fresco performance and anything to do with history and Lichfield – I feel very embarrassed – so I’m going to make up for lost time and book up for 2018!
This is a fabulous way to enjoy a classic English summer’s evening – it’s a local group of local performers, in a local venue before a (mainly) local audience – and backed by the Lichfield Garrick -it’s a great Lichfield success story!
Performances run nightly until Saturday 24 June (with a 2pm a matinee on Saturday – it’s a family-friendly performance and one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays – and the younger audience will love the sword fights!).
So please don’t make my mistake – book now for the remaining performances at the Lichfield Garrick website, www.lichfieldgarrick.com , call into the Box Office at Castle Dyke or ring 01543 412121.
What a beautiful place, What a beautiful play and, as The Levellers sang, What a Beautiful Day!
p.s. you can see more pics on my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/jonotourism