THIS is the year when the word on the Edinburgh Festival was that unless your show featured at least one transitioning character and was gender neutral, you didn’t stand a chance.
So when actor and renowned director Seb Harcombe was asked to direct for the final year of the AUB three year acting course, what better play to test his and his students’ ingenuity than As You Like It, given a fresh and challenging new look in the form of As If.
Devised by the director and company, this brilliant re-imagining keeps Shakespeare’s words (well, most of them) and brings the setting to a timeless but recognisable place where all is not what it seems.
Family feuds are rife.
The duke has banished his brother, who has gone off into the forest to live in what looks like a travellers camp with assorted allies who include the melancholy Madame Jacque. Olivia has reached the end of her nasty tether with her charming younger brother Orlando, and she’s plotting to get him out of her hair by foul means.
And now the duke has taken against his niece Rosalind, and thrown her out too, not realising that so powerful is her relationship with his daughter Celia that one won’t go without the other.
So Orlando, with a faithful old servant Eve, and Rosalind, Celia and their favourite clown Touchstone, are all roaming the forest.
This is a play about love at first sight and mistaken identity, about violent passions and romantic dreams.
The changes wrought in this production increase its power, retaining the poetry of the original and adding in some of the most enigmatic and beautiful of the Sonnets.
The second AUB production in four weeks to be double-cast, it seems almost unfair to write about one company, when the other is hot on their heels.
Cast X has Holly McLachlan in an extraordinary performance as a truly gender neutral Orlando. Shakespearean productions had boys playing the female roles. Here we have a hero who is all teenage boy, and her/his passion is irresistibly powerful.
Playing what is usually his brother, but here his sister Olivia Camille Bell falls for Celia (Lucy Sykes) and you never bat an eyelid how far we have moved.
Royston Paul manages the set-piece speech The Seven Ages of Man with burning clarity, and you wonder if he should get used to the heels or we (the audience) should see that OF COURSE Jacques was always a transvestite in denial.
Dominique Thomas is a lovely Phoebe and Christian Ronnie Smith a painfully ardent Sylvius.
With music hall, bawdy wrestling scenes, deprivation and institutionalised torture, this is a production for all times, but specially for now.
I just hope that the concept, and the production, prove to have legs, and we will see it tour and perform for a much wider audience.