By Sue-Anne Hess

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players

Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It is a reminder of everything that we love about outdoor theatre in the summertime. Discreetly nestled away in Malvern’s Central Park, the audience gathers with folding chairs and picnics to be drawn into the merriment that is Shakespearian comedy. It is relaxing, it is entertaining, and it is funny as hell!

One of Shakespeare’s classic comedies, this adaptation is bang on for its’ deceptively light touch, which belies a studied and intelligent interpretation of the text. As always, the storyline is simple. Two handsome (and unfairly wronged) lovers must flee from the dangers of “court” to the safety of the forest, where a rag-tag crew of misfits help them to find joy, safety and – of course – each another.

The physical comedy is shamelessly loud, which blends perfectly with impeccably-paced dialogue. Shakespeare’s bawdy sense of humor shines through seamless segues to modern-day euphemism, facilitated by hilarious characterisation and facial expressions. Despite the language, there is a refreshing honesty in each of the characters, bringing the story to life, and taking the comedy up yet another notch. Honorable mentions must go to Emma Austin’s “Adam”, Henry O’Brien accents as “Charles”/”Silvius” and Daniel R Nixon for his role of “Oliver”. Annabelle Tudor’s fast-talking, yet utterly understandable character of “Rosalind” also deserves a mention.

The costume design (by Aislinn Naughton) stands out as exceptional.  The monochromatic darks and shades of “court” give way to playful colours and prints in the forest. It was clear that considerable effort have been made to bring the audience along for the ride – not in the least for the courtesy of having each character name embroidered onto their costume – and matching colours/fabrics for the loving couples, destined to be united.  Set design and lighting are unsurprisingly simple, allowing the evening shades of sunset in the park to provide all of the necessary ambiance.

And yes, the music is outstanding. You heard me right. The music. This troupe is a harmony-singing, choreography-dancing, percussion-playing a-cappella choir!  Musical Director Benjamin Colley, and Choreographer, John Reed have outdone themselves in placing song and dance numbers at the heart of the production (rather than the usual periphery).  It is pure gold. Bouncing from 80’s hit “C’mon Eileen” to John Legend’s “All of Me”, to Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun”; their collective mastery of the various musical styles is beyond impressive. Try to stop yourself from clapping along to the girl-power finale (no, I’m not telling. I’ll leave it as a surprise).

One final highlight for me is the audience engagement. With the delineation of where the “stage” begins and ends pleasantly relaxed, the audience finds themselves surrounded by mischief. Many scenes begin with characters entering from the rear or sides (or from within the audience), creating the sense that we are part of the fun. Unsuspecting audience members may find themselves the object of a monologue, or a song, or may even end up sharing their picnics! Actors are consistently “in character” even as they wait for their cue off stage, with antics that are way too funny to be accidental.

As much as we all love Shakespeare, it can be easy to make some “been there, done that” assumptions about this production, and that would be a mistake. Perhaps it was the long weekend, or the free glass of wine (in celebration of International Women’s Day), or the (almost) full moon rising in the clear sky behind us, but there was something incredibly charming about this show. In the midst of a world that has too much to worry about, this family-friendly and environmentally-conscious production will whisk you away to the forest where there is no shortage of frivolity, romance, and happy endings.

All this to say – I cannot fault it.

Cancel your plans for next weekend, and grab a ticket while you can!

 Set: 4/5 Costumes: 5/5   Sound: 5/5 Lighting: 4/5 Performances: 5/5 Stage management: 5/5 Direction: 5/5