Dark clouds fail to dampen spirit of Shakespeare Festival

 

The rain may have demanded a change of location midway through the festival’s opening production of ‘As You Like It’, but this turned out be a perfect complement to the riddles of the Bard’s work, writes PETER CRAWLEY

SHAKESPEAREAN PERFORMERS are not usually known for their powers of improvisation. After all, when you’re dealing with some of the greatest works in drama, whose words and actions have been scrutinised, studied, committed to memory or simply filtered into the lexicon like fluoride in the water supply, nobody is much interested in your own additions.

Yet it was the quick thinking of the GB Theatre Company and the rapid response of the organisers of the second Trinity College Dublin Shakespeare Festival that distinguished the opening production of As You Like It.

Beginning outdoors in Trinity’s front square, in an enclosed space before the legendarily jinxed Campanile, the performance soldiered on for three acts in the constant drizzle of a June Bank Holiday Monday. Finally, as spectators in plastic ponchos rustled indoors for the interval, and dauntless actors presumably wrung the rainwater from their breeches, the producers reached a conclusion that literary scholars have long believed: Shakespeare needs a roof.

Ushered into the nearby Players Theatre, whose stage had been struck and whose lights had been hung in a military-style operation that took only a few minutes, the audience saw a production of two styles. It may have been accidental, but it seemed rather appropriate to a play which itself is about rivalling locations and dual personalities.

Beginning in the stuffy corruption of the court, from which our main characters are unjustly expelled, the play moves to the pastoral fantasy of the Forest of Ardennes, a world of simple outdoor living where, as Andrew Mathys’s balladeer sang with his face upturned, there is “No enemy/ But winter and rough weather.”

Beset by one of those enemies, who seemed to be plotting to reinstate the other, the audience laughed at every meteorological mention. But it thickened the achievement of Neil Sheppeck’s production, one whose thorough understanding of the play and brightly engaged cast made every line accessible and relevant. In truth, it’s hard not to side with any show that has its actors strip to the waist and wrestle on wet cobblestones. And though Sheppeck’s treatment was hardly more daring than a heritage costume drama, like the rural living of the play, it had a deceptive simplicity that disguised a more subversive streak.

It is, after all, a drama of mind-boggling gender games. Here, the commanding Lucia McAnespie played an exiled daughter (Rosalind) who disguises herself as a man (Ganymede) who then pretends to be a woman (Rosalind again) so that her would-be lover, Orlando, can practice his seduction on her/him/her. The audience found themselves in a similarly slippery game of role shifting as the play’s action shifted from the court to the forest while the playing space moved from the square to the theatre.

We pretended to be indoors while outside, then imagined ourselves outside while indoors. It was a little thing, a happy accident, that made you see Shakespeare in literally different lights. While the production lost some of its amperage when shoehorned and quietened for Players, this is the work that famously asks us to see reality and fiction enmeshed. “All the world’s a stage,” says David Davies’s richly lugubrious Jaques, “and all the men and women merely players.”

Jaques is grinding to a starkly morose conclusion, but the play isn’t, and nor is the festival. Its sense that Shakespeare can be as serious as stone and as light as the air, but should always be a pleasure to watch, is perhaps best represented in the curious compère who announces every performance, largely by non-professional or student companies.

As he rings a bell to announce sharply abridged renditions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or scene excerpts from Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, pointing out our exits “hither and tither”, I can just about understand why Aaron Heffernan wears a doublet and tights. But no one could quite explain why he sports a false moustache. Like the programme – which saw several last-minute changes to venues, players and schedules – the riddles of the plays, or indeed the man himself, some things about Shakespeare will always be a mystery.

Festival ends tomorrow. dublinshakespeare.com