Edinburgh is full of hidden gems and secret locations. Tucked up along a covered, cobbled close off the Canongate, Dunbar’s Close Garden is a miniature manicured maze; the sort of treat that tourists only stumble across. It even takes some locals by surprise. The garden is separated into sections (‘parterres’ if you want to be pretentious) with shingle pathways eventually leading down stone steps into a wider section that feels like the Forest of Arden.
At least, that was in the imagination of the team from the Performing Arts programmes of Queen Margaret University who realised, in more than one sense, the potential of this location for a summer performance of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, As You Like It. Relying on Edinburgh’s summer for an outdoor production is an ambitious gamble. On their first evening, our city had enjoyed what passes for a gorgeous day; the kind that sees the summit of Arthur’s Seat peppered with people, barbecues on The Meadows, and picnics in hidden gardens while watching a bit of Shakespeare.
Day two, while the miserable weather may or may not have prevented local folk from voting, the press-release from QMU was quite clear: the show must go on. And so this intrepid reviewer checked the weather forecast before buying a brolly and voting… rather, deciding, to brave the rain. We Edinburghers are made of stern stuff when it comes to supporting local arts. Some of the audience actually brought picnics!
There was a party atmosphere as people were seated beneath the dripping trees. The cast wandered around, chatting with family, friends, and strangers. After all, when you’re playing al fresco, there’s no fourth wall. The first applause came from some of the actors who, having spotted a shaft of sunlight breaking through the grey clouds, gave an assurance that all would be well. A housekeeping announcement explained that some of the ‘action’ may be tempered (at least, in tempo) due to the wet conditions.
The truth of this was immediately scuppered: the action kicked in with an exuberance that made the entire performance dance from start to finish. Had anyone been previous toying with the question, should I stay in or go out, the answer was energetically thrust back. The entire company belted, with simple percussion accompaniment, Should I stay or should I go – while introducing characters with intertitles on cards, shown through a large TV-screen-like frame. It was a chaotic, energetic, and humourous opener that left another question: was this production a little too large for the delicate venue?
Conversely, after all the noise and mayhem, it transpired that on a wet summer evening, Edinburgh can be pretty noisy too. Projecting the voice in an open-air arena is not without difficulties, especially for those with lighter tone. Some actors struggled, occasionally, to be heard over the sounds of birds, car alarms, and local revellers. The risk of using the space imaginatively (players used a natural ‘gallery’ behind the hedges of the playing area, as well as the steps into the rear garden) paid off, mainly due to sheer enthusiasm.
Despite its hammy humour, As You Like It is not without political machinations and profound sentiment. Playing Melancholy Jaques, Itsaso Echeverria Monreal had to plough through the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech while a loudhailer passed down the Royal Mile urging people to go and vote. It was, indeed, to its credit that the production focused more on the Carnival atmosphere of the piece, almost to the extent of over-egging the humour. Some of the acting bordered on farce, with more pantomime than pastoral coming through.
But here’s the thing: it didn’t matter. This was a great ensemble performance, with a large group of students and staff from across the University’s Performing Arts, inclusive in more ways than one, playing to a wide range of abilities and – clearly – having great fun doing so. Not even a few tiny outbursts of rain could dampen the spirits of either the audience or cast; nor did the few slips of pace, or script, or timing particularly mar the performance.
It’s tricky to pick out individuals from such an array of participants. Nevertheless, even putting politics aside (but not), As You Like It is very much a gender-issue piece. Maegan Hearons’ fun-filled Celia, Keira Kirkwood’s bolshy Phebe, and a wonderfully frumpy but feisty Audrey (Eloise Anderson) each gave their male counterparts plenty to play against.
Amid all the fun and silliness, Danielle Jam’s Rosalind (one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters) retained enough gravitas throughout, allowing her to have the final word without any sense of sending up the meta-meaning of ‘the play may please.’ Indeed, the play, the location, and the ebullient performance were all a pleasure that even a General Election – er… I mean, a bit of precipitation – couldn’t dampen.
The remaining performances are on Saturday 10th June, 2pm and 7pm.