As You Like It serves beautifully as a vehicle through which to celebrate Corpus Christi’s 500th anniversary. A performance in promenade, the audience is led through the college’s cloisters, gardens, chapel and finally into its hall for Rosalind’s modest epilogue, which seems in all its humility to entreat the approval of not only the play’s wanton lovers but of the college itself. It pains me to admit, as a loyal student of Christ Church, that Corpus Christi and its players alike are truly stunning and receive my approval in bucket loads.
The Shakespearean pastoral comedy As You Like It follows the plight of Rosalind, (portrayed by the unwaveringly amiable Georgie Murphy) after she is banished from her uncle’s court and is forced to seek refuge in the Forest of Arden, wherein she chooses to disguise herself as a man, Ganymede, to evade persecution. Meanwhile, a young gentleman Orlando, (played with great passion and innocence by Christopher Page) also flees into the forest after discovering his brother’s plot to murder him. The pair encounters a host of vibrant characters in the forest, including the exiled court of Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior, (performed with impossible charm by Richard Carwardine) and small society of simple yet endearing shepherds. All the while, Rosalind tackles with her love for Orlando, though she is unable to consolidate her feelings for fear of revealing her identity.
A performance in promenade, the audience is led through the college’s cloisters, gardens, chapel and finally into its hall for Rosalind’s modest epilogue,
The co-directors John Retallack and Renata Allen, who Corpus have borrowed from the local theatre-making institute ‘Oxford Playmaker’, should be commended for their incorporation of the whole college in the staging of this production. I should clarify here that, by ‘whole college’, I refer not only to the numerous locations within Corpus that were used to stage the narrative, but also the variety of members of the college who were involved. The aforementioned Richard Carwardine was until recently the college President, which seems to imbue his performance with delightful warmth towards the undergraduates portraying his court. The servant Orlando, Adam, is played by David Leake, who has been the college gardener since 1979; although at times his movements are uncertain, his delivery is wonderfully sincere and often quite paternal. Moreover, throughout the majority of the performance, which takes place inside the MBI al Jaber Auditorium, the play is accompanied by a group of undergraduate musicians attached to Corpus. I must also commend the musical director, Katherine Pardee, for her seamless integration of the many songs throughout the play, which feel as much a part of the performance as the dialogue. I would also like to highlight Albert McIntosh’s musical performance as Second Lord: a powerful and captivating voice, although the voice of Alex Taylor as Amiens is equally impressive.
Although the music did not disturb the pace of performance, unfortunately the initial shuttling of the audience around the cloisters and gardens of Corpus caused quite a great deal of distraction. Furthermore, upon arrival the audience were initially split into two groups, such that the first two scenes of the play were performed in unison and then repeated. Whilst I appreciate the outdoor spaces are perhaps too small to accommodate the whole audience, unfortunately due to the size of the college it did mean that the argument between Orlando and his brother in the garden could be heard echoing around the cloisters in which Rosalind speaks with her cousin, Cecilia, and her fool, Touchstone. I would like to draw especial attention to the performance of Beth Evans as Touchstone, as she is truly the energy behind the whole performance. During the initial awkward shuffling towards our seats, Evans playfully bantered with the audience to ease us into the play; as the play continues, her wonderfully physical routine kept the stage alive during some of the more static exchanges between the exiled court or Rosalind and Cecilia. I should also congratulate the chemistry between Murphy and Molly Willett, (who portrays Cecilia) for the couple were alike to squabbling sisters in their critical yet endearing exchanges. Conversely, the relationship between Page’s Orlando and his onstage brother Oliver, (played by Hugh Tappin) was alarmingly vicious in the first scene. Tappin’s initial appearance as the venomous elder brother was grotesquely addictive, to the point that it’s almost disappointing to see the brother’s make amends in the second act.
Nevertheless, I must clarify that I think the ensemble cast were excellent, if not somewhat overshadowed by the lead performers.
There were no weak performances in As You Like It, although in light of the strength of certain performances, (in my opinion, Murphy, Evans and Carwardine being the most noteworthy) some of the smaller characters felt slightly one dimensional. Whereas the relationship between the shepherd Corin and his son Silvius, (played by Neil McLynn and Ben Thorne respectively), emanates a warmth similar to that displayed between Page’s Orlando and Leake’s Adam, the attraction which Silvius shows towards the shepherdess Phebe, (played by Isobel Hambleton) feels more desperate than passionate. Moreover, although the infatuation which Hambleton’s Phebe conveys towards Murphy’s Ganymede is highly amusing, it feels somewhat overplayed comparative to her disinterest in Thorne’s Silvius. Nevertheless, I must clarify that I think the ensemble cast were excellent, if not somewhat overshadowed by the lead performers.
My principle disappointment with the production was the costumes. While I liked the gaudy cheques of Touchstone’s suit and the humble browns of the battered trouser and waistcoats donned by the exiled characters in the Forest of Arden, there was no clear sense of time period. The indigo suit of Oliver and the emerald coat worn initially by Rosalind seemed at odds with Cecilia’s dress in the forest, for example, which was reminiscent of a travelling fortune teller. Orlando’s entrance into the exiled court brandishing a revolver equally compounded my confusion. Furthermore, whereas I liked the minimalist set in the Auditorium – a collection of branches strung together and suspended from the ceiling, identifying the forest – it was a shame that Orlando’s poetry is strung across the back of the stage, such that we lose Murphy and Evan’s wonderful facial expressions.
These are, however, small complaints amongst an abundance of congratulation. As You Like It successfully realises the humour and the romance of Shakespeare’s often overlooked comedy. The infusion of music throughout the play and the insightful utilisation of all of Corpus’ grounds makes As You Like It a charming and joyous celebration of the college’s quincentenary.