The weather was appalling during the day, but the rain abated at teatime and the performance went ahead as scheduled. Although I have seen many open-air Shakespeare productions before, this was my first experience of the Brownsea Open Air Theatre (BOAT) variety and what a very good experience it was. I had assumed a relatively low level of staging, lighting, effects and so on, but the experienced BOAT crew have been doing this for a very long time – since 1964 in fact (the Assistant Stage Manager told me it was his 23rd year!). There is tiered seating on three sides, there are elevated lighting gantries, there are sophisticated backlit trees, there are background sounds coming from multiple places in the auditorium – and it will all revert to nothing but grass, chickens and peacocks in a couple of weeks’ time.
From the opening court scenes, stylised in black and white to differentiate it from the rustic colours of the Forest of Arden, the show oozes sophistication. We are introduced to the plot background – the exile of the old order to the forest by the new order represented by the suitably tyrannical Dawn Hollington as Duchess Frederica. The conclusion of the wrestling match between Orlando (Jack Edwards) and the dangerously threatening Charles (Mark Elliot) elicited a spontaneous round of applause – top marks to the fight choreographer, Peter Beebee. There is delightful interplay between the two ‘girls’, Rosalind and Celia (Marie Bushell and Naomi McQuin), a marvellous ‘Love at first sight’ moment between Orlando and Rosalind and great pathos from Mike Bicknell as the aged but loyal retainer, Adam. Then we are transported away from the court as the doors symbolically close on Orlando’s elder brother, Oliver (Paul Naidu).
The court banners magically snap down to reveal the trees beneath, benches are moved to reveal rustic logs and a song introduces us to the Forest of Arden setting. The music is delightfully performed by Mark Elliott on guitar (having effected a rapid recovery from his wrestling injuries) with sweet vocalisations from Martha Jenkins as two of the unnamed foresters. This is the first of several such musical interludes by the foresters and the exiled courtiers in the forest – not too much, but all very pleasant and well executed.
Another aspect of the forest is the bird sounds, which include turtle doves (sadly rarely heard in the UK these days) during the day and the eerie churring of the nightjar for the night. Most of the audience were probably oblivious of the answering calls from one of Brownsea’s summer-visiting nightjars, which then flew across the stage in search of a suspected rival – keep an eye out for a repeat performance!
The performances of Jason Green as the lovelorn Silvius and Shipa Khatun as the object of his desire, Phebe, are very strong and provoked much mirth among the audience. There is a nice cameo from Chaz Davenport as the not-very-bright William, outsmarted by Touchstone for the favours of Denise King as Audrey. Harry Susser as Jacques delivers a very competent and eloquent ‘seven ages of man’ speech, which contrives to use many of the members of the ensemble as examples. This is one of the many examples of the very striking and confident direction from director Brian Woolton. The full width of the grass stage is used and there is plenty of life and movement from every character: never a pause or a dull moment as the cast enter and exit (sometimes at a run) from and to all points. I liked the occasional engagement of the audience, as when Stuart Glossop, as a very bawdy Touchstone, passes a skein of wool to someone to hold for the shepherdess, Corin (usually Corin is a male shepherd, but in this production the part is played by Val Holland; we also have the two dukes replaced by two duchesses).
Jack Edwards plays a very good Orlando and there are several others worthy of note but too numerous to mention here. This play is rightly known as having the best parts for women in the roles of Rosalind/Ganymede and Celia/Aliena. Maria Bushell and Naomi McQuin really nail them – well cast, word perfect, always audible, excellent acting, every nuance of Shakespeare’s dialogue so competently delivered. I hope we will be seeing more of these two performers.
This was the opening night of an amateur show, but it was an opening night which would put shame to many a professional production. Very enjoyable indeed and well worth the ticket price, which includes the ferry to and from the island. A visit to the candlelit interior of the nearby Victorian church during the interval just enhances the experience.
Future performances: 28, 31 July, 2, 4, 7, 9, 11 August. In each case, the following day is set aside as a contingency in case of bad weather. All at 7.30; ferries leave Poole Quay between 5.00 and 6.40.