JOYCE MCMILLAN on AS YOU LIKE IT at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, COMMUNICATING DOORS at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and FIVE MINUTE THEATRE, all over Scotland, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 19.7.12
As You Like It 4 stars ****
Communicating Doors 4 stars ****
Five Minute Theatre 4 stars ****
IT’S WORTH quoting in full, the first verse of the first great song in Shakespeare’s fabulous pastoral comedy, As You Like It. “Under the greenwood tree,” sing the usurped Duke’s men, camping in the forest, “who loves to lie with me, and tune his merry note, unto the sweet bird’s throat? Come hither, come hither, come hither. Here shall you see no enemy, but winter and rough weather.”
Rough weather has been the order of the day, at this year’s Bard In The Botanics season. Last weekend, though, the clouds parted, and evening sunlight poured through the trees; creating a perfect space for Gordon Barr’s long, faithful yet rewarding promenade production of a play which, in some ways, marks the start of the great English obsession with the green countryside as a place of truth, authenticity and kindness, compared with the lies, cruelty and deception of city and court. The play’s two heroines – the lovely Rosalind, tall daughter of the true Duke, and her sidekick and cousin Celia, daughter of the usurper at court – are both on the side of the angels; and when they arrive in the forest of Arden, Shakespeare’s Warwickshire version of Arcadia, it’s with a real sense of relief, particularly when they realise that everyone they care about is already there with them.
So for two-and-a-half merry hours, we in the audience follow the characters around the lovely woodlands of the Botanics – from the glasshouses that represent the court, to the lovely spreading tree under which the Duke and his men are camped – in a production that has no obvious point to make, and is a little long-drawn-out in parts.
What the show lacks in speed and brilliance, though, it fully makes up in the sheer quality of its loving attention to the text; and it’s refreshing to see a production whch simply goes with the flow of this strange, and beautiful play, as it plays around with gender, and wanders off into oddly contemporary reflections on our right – or not – to slaughter animals for our food. In Kirk Bage, the show has a world-class melancholy Jacques, his sideways relationship with the rest of the company perfectly played for comic effect. In the end, though, the production revolves around the sheer beauty and intelligence of Nicole Cooper’s Rosalind; as one of the most powerful and dynamic heroines in all of Shakespeare woos her man, secures his love, and sorts out the fate of everyone else in the forest, before delivering an epilogue to remember, in the fading light of a summer dusk.
There’s also some real woman-power on view in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1994 play Communicating Doors, revived at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the most absorbing and entertaining show of the season so far. Set in the same London hotel-room today, twenty years ago, and twenty years in the future, this deeply optimistic fantasy-drama imagines what might happen if the three female victims of a wealthy man’s murderous and manipulative business partner found themselves able to travel in time, and to forewarn one another of the terrible fate in store.
It’s a strange plot, which requires a large stretch of the imagination from both audience and characters; and it’s not helped, at Pitlochry, by yet another clunky and literal set. There’s something about the story, though, that seems to bring out the best in the women of the company, with Jacqueline Dutoit acting up a storm as the feisty middle wife Ruella, whose intelligence and determination drives the story, the lovely Kate Quinnell in glorious form as first wife Jessica, and Jo Freer soaring to some real heights of subtlety and poignancy as the call-girl Poopay and her alternative self Phoebe, the one whose life is comprehensively saved, forty years on.
There were angry women around, too, in the latest edition of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Five Minute Theatre, streamed online from locations all over Scotland on Saturday afternoon, and built around the theme of youth. One of the key preoccupations seemed to be the pressure on teenage girls to achieve a certain look; and although none of the plays I saw managed a full dramatic expression of this idea, I was struck by the vehemence of a trio of girls from the Love Drama group, slithering around in a messy bedroom on piles of celebrity-and-beauty magazines.
The online audience for this nationwide Five Minute Theatre was low compared with previous editions, rarely rising above 60 people; and it looks as though the NTS, having established this ground-breaking format, now needs to think hard about how to increase its impact and reach, as a contribution to Scottish life.
Yet there were still some real gems of miniature theatre here. Douglas Maxwell’s musical monologue 162 Bars Out, performed by students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, is a delicious celebration of a young percussion-player in an orchestral group, praying that his brief drum solo will attract the attention of the girl he loves. 9 a.m. Monday Morning is a glorious brief operetta by Judith Hastie for two demented dental receptionists haunted by the sight of a floating grey hair. And in the day’s finest piece of writing, young Elliot Cooper, sitting cross-legged on a floor at the MacRobert Centre, delivers a superb monologue, by himself and Kiana Kalantar-Hormozi, about the heartland of teenage pressure and angst, and the endless inner conversation through which it magnifies and complicates itself, until something has to give.
As You Like It at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 28 July. Communicating Doors in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 11 October. Five Minute Theatre (Youth) now available online, at .
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
This summer, RSAMD-trained actress Nicole Cooper confirms her place as the leading lady of the Bard In The Botanics company, with a glorious star performance as Rosalind in As You Like It. Her command of the verse is perfect, her voice is beautiful, her performance is an intelligent and forceful as it is womanly and sexy; and on a fine night, her farewell song to the audience offers a completely magical moment of beauty and poise, of the kind only the greatest art can ever achieve.