My first attempt at seeing the Open Air's As You Like It was rained off during the interval. I'm glad that I managed to return as Rachel Kavanaugh's production is a sparky version of a play that is too often presented as one of Shakespeare's more genteel comedies.
The tone is dictated at the outset by Benedict Cumberbatch's raging Orlando, furiously kicking a bucket away in frustration at his lost fortune, and is continued by Adam Levy's suave Oliver, petulantly pushing his younger brother's hand off his shoulder.
Nor is there any attempt by Duke Frederick to hide his displeasure at Orlando's winning the wrestling match. The Ruritanian uniforms give the impression of a suffocating dictatorship, a government that can indeed appropriate property at will and make people disappear. You can well appreciate the need for Rosalind and Celia to get as far away from it as possible.
Rebecca Johnson's Rosalind (unusually, smaller than Celia - she's certainly not 'uncommon tall') doesn't disguise her infatuation with Orlando for this no shy and blushing maid. When Celia asks whether she should love Orlando merely because her father loved Orlando's, she nods furiously. And, when dressed as Ganymede, she asks "am I not your Rosalind?" she suits action to words by shaping to take off her clothes as if to prove it.
Despite his fiery start, Cumberbatch's Orlando ultimately seems no match for so feisty a lover. We're left with the distinct impression that she'll be the one wearing the trousers in the relationship. Caitlin Mottram's Celia is shrinking violet either. In fact, both women, who appear well at ease with their sexuality, enhance the production considerably with their performances.
There's also a superb performance from John Hodgkinson as Touchstone. Not only does he manage to draw humour out of every line, but he manages to convey unrequited passion for Celia. His attachment to Audrey, although boisterously sexual, has an underlying air of sadness, and even in the act of walking away, ostensibly, to get married, he shoots a wistful look in Celia's direction.
I'm less convinced by Christopher Godwin's un-melancholic Jacques. When he says "I am ambitious for a motley coat", you feel that, if he were to get one, he'd be topping the bill at the Arden Empire in no time. But this clowning is at gross odds with the text and sits uncomfortably in the production.
One real plus point for me is the adoption of a Midlands accent by the country folk. It's really tedious to hear the standard 'Mummerset' burr every time As You Like It is performed, and besides, the tortured vowels of Warwickshire are more apposite for the forest of Arden, supposedly set in France but, in reality, much closer to home.
This is a production that will warm the heart - even in rough weather.