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Review: As You Like It (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

Olivia Vinall stars in Max Webster's production of Shakespeare's play at the open air venue

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Keziah Joseph as Celia, Edward Hogg as Orlando and Olivia Vinall as Rosalind.
© Jane Hobson

Hipsters and hippies unite and save the world! Max Webster's eco As You Like It proposes an unlikely alliance between old beatniks and young trendies as a remedy for the ravages of climate change. This is Operation Clean-Up Arden Forest, and its exiles forge a sustainable, self-sufficient micro-society out in the woods – but old habits die hard and Webster's young runaways aren't always friends of the earth.

It opens on an uncaring corporate court. Beruce Khan's uptight Oliver has inherited his father's vast fast food empire and demoted his sensitive brother Orlando (Edward Hogg) to litter-picking duties. Its plastic packaging bobs about in a pond and piles up at the sides of Naomi Dawson's metal stage, which blights the landscape and blocks out the park's trees. Little wonder, as a thrashing opening number complains, "the rain it raineth every day". Everyone's sodden, and furious to boot. Suits lash their coffee cups down with a splash, and vent their frustrations watching wrestling for sport.

Recent As You Like Its have struggled to see the idyll of Arden. Polly Findlay gave us a wintry expanse of earth at the National, and Maria Aberg resorted to the muddy, man-made delight of a music festival in Stratford. Webster makes the case that environmentalism takes effort. His fur-clad foresters fashion plant pots from oil drums and hanging baskets from tyres. Like John Stahl's Corin 'they earn what they eat and get that they wear': hunting where necessary and living off the land. Gradually, a green clearing comes back to life.

So too do the young exiles who end up in its midst, finding new freedoms among their green-fingered friends. Yet, in their high-end Millets kit, each also struggles to completely slot in. Whether Hogg's Orlando – ironically too wimpy by half – littering the forest with love poems or Danny Kirrane's Touchstone taking up water-torture to see off a rival suitor, each retains traces of the callous society in which they grew up.

Rosalind might be the worst of the lot. Though lacking the lightness to make the comedy sing, Olivia Vinall gives us Ganymede as a total bro. With her cap facing backwards and her baggy jeans half-slung, she adopts such a swaggering masculine confidence that she comes across as callous. Her rejection of Joanne McGuinness' Phoebe is heartless as hell, as if, in playing male, she takes on all its misogyny and relishes it too. Hers is a feminism that forgets sisterhood entirely.

It's a light-hearted production with serious intent, but Webster's so determined to jolly an audience along that his staging sometimes loses focus. It brings the clowns to the fore – and they're some of Shakespeare's trickiest. Rather than a jester straining for wit, Kirrane turns Touchstone into a good-humoured lad, mocking a 'gap yah' experience of exile, and Maureen Beattie's dour, dreadlocked Jaques finds a melancholy rooted in misanthropy. When she rails against hunters returning with a fresh kill, you get the sense no-one could live up to her eco-minded, ascetic standards. She's out of sorts with a production rooted in cheer, with Charlie Fink's balmy songs tipping towards musical theatre. Webster needs a final gesture to tie the whole thing together – some way for Rosalind and Co to make amends – because this clever cry for unity lacks a unity of its own.

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