Review: As You Like It, Actors Church ★★★★★

On a grey and rainy evening, open-air promenade theatre is not necessarily the first thing on your list of things to do. However, Iris Theatre’s incredible new production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It makes battling the British summer weather more than worth it. In the gardens of St Paul’s the Actors Church, director Daniel Winder’s company take the audience down the rabbit hole into a Shakespearean Wonderland.

From the very first jests of this remarkable production, it is clear that Winder and his highly talented cast have explored ingenious ways of utilising the versatile space they are working with, while Tessa Battisti’s design has transformed the gardens into a pastoral nirvana. Along with lighting designer Benjamin Polya and costume designer Sophia Anastasiou, Battisti deserves high praise for her simple and yet highly effective design which is both breath-taking and suitably subtle, particularly in the Forest of Arden and the Cave scenes.

Winder’s production subtly explores questions of sexuality and lust while always keeping its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. The comic timing and imaginative approach to this play inject this play with a new sense of vitality. Winder focuses Shakespeare’s earthy comedy on the groundlings once more, combining the rhythm and bawdy humour in the Bard’s writing with a beautifully constructed concept. The characters play out to the audience who, like a merry crowd gathered on the grass at a music festival, feel a remarkable sense of togetherness.

The leading actors are perfectly matched. Joe Forte is all man as Orlando, balancing brawn and romance precisely, and he meets his match in Emily Tucker’s fiery Rosalind. The magnetic Tucker gets completely inside the skin of one of Shakespeare’s most acclaimed female roles; both as Rosalind and in her guise as Ganymede it is clear why the characters fall for her. Fiona Geddes is a great presence as Rosalind’s confidante and sidekick, Celia, while Heather Johnson’s Phoebe is charming and funny. Christopher Rowland, who plays a whole host of characters including Amiens, has a smile and a singing voice that light up the gardens of the church all on their own. He is suitably boyish while being incredibly likeable, and creates a great bond with the audience.

Winder’s shrewd, razor-sharp direction results in a perfectly executed romp that cannot fail to amuse an audience

One of the most notable performers was Diana Kashlan as the fool, Touchstone. Her eyes bulged from her skull as she skyrocketed through Touchstone’s many glorious witticisms and harnessed an energy that would be the envy of many veteran actors. The cross-gendered casting is inspired, and she plays off Matthew Mellalieu’s buxom Audrey with skill.

Iris Theatre have created something very special. New, folk-inspired music paired with Battisti’s “land-art” and Winder’s shrewd, razor-sharp direction results in a perfectly executed romp that cannot fail to amuse an audience, despite the British weather. While perfect as an introduction to Shakespeare, those who are more familiar with his writing will be astounded by just how fresh this production feels.

A beautiful production with a tremendous cast, Iris Theatre’s As You Like It is without a doubt one of the best productions of Shakespeare that London has to offer this summer.

***** (5 stars)
Runs until 4th August
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