And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it.

There are reasons, I guess, why I am so bewitched by Shakespeare’s pastoral dramas, notably the great good fortune of an untrammelled fifties childhood in rural Cheshire, and then coming of age amidst the swirl of hippie values in the sixties – waving the flag for peace and love, rejecting materialism, and yearning to get back to nature.

The pastoral vision of a lost world of innocence and the simpler life of the countryside, with its potential for love and renewal, flowered in this year’s production of As You Like It at Chester’s open air Grosvenor Park Theatre. In the last few years it’s become a summer Shakespeare ritual for me and my daughter to chance the English weather and take our seats in the terraces (some covered, others not) of this theatre in the round.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare sets up the central concern of the pastoral genre – contrasting the ambition, arbitrary power and ruthlessness of Duke Frederick’s court with the freedom and communality of life in the Forest of Arden, a magical place where love (and forgiveness) can blossom.

This production at Grosvenor Park – directed by Philip Wilson – took a while to catch fire, with the second half decidedly more enjoyable than the first. The clunky start is partly down to Shakespeare, with the scenes at court that set up the flight or exile from the court of Rosalind, Orlando and Celia being among the most implausible he wrote.

It’s a headache trying to understand why the bad Duke has Rosalind, the daughter of the good Duke he has usurped, living with him, along with two brothers who are not his own sons but those of the deceased Sir Rowland de Boys – the younger sensitive and handsome Orlando who is denied an education and  treated harshly by his elder brother Oliver. Why does the Duke become so enraged when in a (very well-staged) wresting match, his personal wrestler is beaten by Orlando? As a consequence of his rage, just about everyone at court is banished or chooses exile. Never mind, at least all this gets us to the Forest of Arden.

The wrestling match: Fred Lancaster as Orlando and Harry Livingstone as Charles
The wrestling match: Fred Lancaster as Orlando and Harry Livingstone as Charles

But the lacklustre start was, I think, also down to the quality of some of the acting, most notably on the part of Ian Harris as the authoritarian Duke Frederick. Though garbed in the gangster’s rings, black suit and white tie, in his delivery he failed to achieve real menace. A more general problem was that several actors failed to project their voices strongly enough (though an hour in they were admittedly battling against the noise of heavy rain drumming on the canvas roof of the covered terraces).

Once the scene shifted to the Forest of Arden, however, the cast began to get into their stride, led by Rose O’Loughlin who gave an outstanding performance as the feisty Rosalind – the largest female role in Shakespeare, who has twice as many lines as anyone else in the play, most of them spoken in the guise of Ganymede, a man.

When the melancholy Jaques speaks the most famous lines of the play – ‘All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players’ – he serves to highlight two of the central themes of the play: how individuals can disguise themselves and play roles that unlock different aspects of their personality; and how Shakespeare explores issues of gender in a manner whose forthrightness would not return for nearly 400 years.

Wet but not down-hearted: As You Like It in Grosvenor Park
Wet but not down-hearted: As You Like It in Grosvenor Park

I was reminded that I had seen this play at the RSC in Stratford back in 1996. The evidence for this (since I’d clean forgotten it) lies in the programme which we still possess. In it, nearly two decades before same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK, Germaine Greer writes:

Two thirds of the way through As You Like It occurs one of the strangest scenes in British Theatre of any epoch. Two boys, Ganymede and Orlando, stand up side by side and are married before a girl priest. Ganymede, who also answers to the name Rosalind, makes sure that they speak the words correctly, that is, in the present tense. ‘I take thee Rosalind for wife’, says Orlando, and Ganymede responds, ‘I do take thee Orlando for my husband’.

The audience knows, of course, that Ganymede is a girl in disguise; Shakespeare’s audience and some modern audiences have also known that the disguised girl was being acted by a boy.  Even without this further ambiguity, the ikon before the audience is that of same-sex marriage.

And then there’s Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s most wonderful characters. Far from being conventionally passive and submissive, she possesses intelligence, quick wit – and beauty. Her conversation is peppered with witty repartee and sparkling observations on the male sex – such as ‘men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love’ – and women, too – ‘You shall never take her without her answer, unless you take her without her tongue’, she advises the hapless shepherd Silvius whose love for Phoebe the shepherdess is not reciprocated. While of herself she remarks, ‘Do you not know I am a woman? When I think I must speak.’

Through Rosalind Shakespeare also makes As You Like It an anatomy of love and an exploration of desire. Seeing Orlando triumph in the wrestling match she says:

Sir, you have wrestled well, and overthrown
More than your enemies.

And later she declares to her soul-mate Celia ‘that thou didst know how many fathoms deep I am in love!’, informing her that ‘it cannot be sounded: my affection hath an unknown bottom, like the bay of Portugal’.

But it is in the teasing woodland exchanges between Rosalind (disguised as the boy Ganymede) and Orlando after she has offered to cure him of his affliction that the nature of love is fully explored. ‘Did you ever cure any so? asks Orlando. Rosalind’s reply sets up the pretence – insisting that he must always call him Rosalind ‘and come every day to my cote and woo me’ at the same time as dissecting the ‘madness’ of being in love:

Yes, one, and in this manner. He was to imagine me his love, his mistress; and I set him every day to woo me: at which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles, for every passion something and for no passion truly any thing, as boys and women are for the most part cattle of this colour; would now like him, now loathe him; then entertain him, then forswear him; now weep for him, then spit at him; that I drove my suitor
from his mad humour of love to a living humour of madness; which was, to forswear the full stream of the world, and to live in a nook merely monastic.
And thus I cured him; and this way will I take upon me to wash your liver as clean as a sound sheep’s heart, that there shall not be one spot of love in’t.

These interchanges with Orlando, as Rosalind pursues his ‘cure’, as well as those with Touchstone (perhaps Shakespeare’s least funny fool, here inexplicably portrayed as some kind of ventriloquist with a puppet permanently attached to his arm), with the ‘melancholic’ Jaques (for me, a remarkably dull and uninteresting character), and with the shepherdess Phoebe and her whining suitor Silvius give us some of the funniest lines in the play.

We had arrived at Grosvenor Park around 4.00 pm in blazing sunshine, but the forecast was for rain by six – and at 5.45 a steady rain duly began. This meant that for a good part of the second half members of the audience in the uncovered terraces and the cast got a drenching. But it was in the second half especially that the production hit its stride, as sparks flew between the couples on stage and the audience cheered them on.

Hymen's ceremony
Hymen’s ceremony: Orlando and Rosalind embrace

Designers often seem to evoke the hippie sixties for Shakespeare’s pastoral scenes, and this was no exception. Designer Jess Curtis had come up with a set of rustic simplicity in which a collection of chairs balanced in different formations on top of each other evoked trees, a campfire, and so on. But it was with the costumes that Curtis echoed hippie culture. The elaborate silken gowns and sharp suits of the court were replaced by earthy, peasant costumes while Celia was decked out as a flower child.

The best bit of staging came with the wedding scene at the end of the play in which the goddess Hymen presides over four simultaneous marriages. The cast were dressed in traditional Morris Dancers rag coats, flags fluttered in the drizzle, and musicians strummed folk tunes. Most remarkable though was when the god Hymen entered on stilts, sporting the antlers of a stag. I was puzzling over this – why stilts? – when my daughter leaned in to explain: ‘High-Man!’

The god Hymen appears on stilts (Photograph Brian Slater)
The god Hymen appears on stilts (Photograph Brian Slater)

In the end, everything is resolved in love, grievances are forgotten, and everyone is happy. For the forest is a fantasy, a magical place, and that is its power. Just as I recall heading off as a child for long days in the woods around my Cheshire home where streams were raging torrents to be forded heroically, where terrors lurked in the undergrowth, dens could be built and battles fought with twigs as weapons while I wore my Davy Crockett hat – so I like to think that in this play Shakespeare, too, was remembering the real forest of Arden, the rural idyll of his youth.

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see no enemy
But winter and rough weather.

The Forest of Arden as envisaged here by Shakespeare is a place of magic, an English forest populated by a fierce lion and a mythical god; not to mention a spirited woman who promises to ‘laugh like a hyena’, be ‘more clamorous than a parrot against rain’, and ‘more giddy in her desires than a monkey’. It is, in the words of an essay in the Grosvenor’s programme, ‘a place outside the bounds of authority, where normal rules don’t apply; an untamed place where gender definitions can be turned on their heads.’

The forest is a place of human enchantment that allows gender and social roles to be explored:

In this forest, Rosalind can become a man (‘Ganymede’), while her cousin Celia takes on the name ‘Aliena’ to echo her status as a refugee.

In his pastoral works Shakespeare explores themes contrasting town and country which would have been very pertinent to an Elizabethan audience, with the simple, natural world of the forest contrasted to the power and authority of the town, court or state. There’s a point in the play where Rosalind asks Orlando, ‘I pray you, what is’t o’clock? and he replies, ‘You should ask me what time o’ day: there’s no clock in the forest.’

It struck me that the time in which As You Like It was first performed was when clocks first began to appear, soon to the become the tyrannical technology that determined the hours of labour. The enclosures were just beginning, and entrepreneurs seeking to exploit the land for sheep pasture, minerals or wood for building would soon put an end to ancient traditions that tolerated squatters and commoners

As the author of the Grosvenor’s programme notes observes, in Shakespeare’s day, although they might be different worlds with opposed values, town and country were not as far apart as they are now:

Back in 1599, when the play was written, far more of England was forested, and no-one was very far from the countryside. Even London was nothing like a city in today’s terms: Spitalfields, for instance, was what its name suggests – open fields. So the idea that wilderness and wildness lie within walking distance was not unusual, 400 years ago.

The author continues by taking Chester as an interesting case in point:

Here in Chester, the city limits are defined by a Roman wall (an approach that even Touchstone commends when he declares that ‘a walled town is more worthier than a village’). The city’s green space – with plenty of trees – in which you are sitting lies just outside these walls, very much within walking distance. In fact, the walk from the car park to the theatre is a journey from inside the city, through the walls, past a classical amphitheatre, then past a church that has been there since pagan times and on into the pastoral setting of the park and the theatre. Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre represents, in a physical way, the very dynamics of As You Like It.

Under the Greenwood Tree: As You Like It in Grosvenor Park
Under the Greenwood Tree: As You Like It in Grosvenor Park

Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all,
With measure heap’d in joy, to the measures fall.

The production finished on a high note with the multiple weddings presided over by the god Hymen on stilts, an opportunity for song and dance. Despite the rain that fell through a good part of the show, and though some of the acting and musicianship was not as forceful as in the previous two plays we have watched at the Grosvenor, this was an enjoyable production. With the drizzle easing off, we left the park feeling cheered and uplifted.

See also

 

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2 thoughts on “As You Like It in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain

  1. Those lines: And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it. have been on our fridge since we moved to the countryside! I loved reading this post, bringing back memories of every outdoor Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen – most specially one in London “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” – complete with rain and hot chocolate and our sleepy children who were nonetheless entranced. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Katy. Those lines are among my favourite of Shakespeare’s.Apart from Chester’s Grosvenor, most years The Globe now visit Calderstones Park here in Liverpool. Always magical.

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