As You Like It down home on the Rock

Robin Hutton as Hymen with members of the company in As You Like It. Photography by David Hou.

Robin Hutton as Hymen with members of the company in As You Like It. Photography by David Hou.

As You Like It
Stratford Festival 2016
Avon Theatre

Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Adrian Mitchell
Directed by Jillian Keiley

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 56 minutes (with one 20-minute interval)

June 2-October 22

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Upon learning imaginative director Jillian Keiley would be tackling the bard’s As You Like It, more than a few pertinent questions sprung to mind, fueled by the troubling notion of whether Newfoundland culture could be successfully married with Shakespearean literature.

To delay you good readers no longer, a one-word answer – yes. True there were some scattered quibbles about incorporating into the theatrical mix the sometimes raucous Newfoundland kitchen party motif, with a few even suggesting it made the stage a tad overcrowded.

Others pondered the pre-performance issuance of curiously designed grab-bags filled with such delights as nightly lit stars, branches, hand fans, clothespins, sonnets, party hats and wedding floral arrangements – all intended to include the seated as willing or amusingly unwilling participants in the boisterous on-stage activity. Some volunteers, with the aid of a little perfunctory dance training earlier in the week, became part of the final wedding party.

Consider Keiley’s words and none of this should come as a surprise – even to that small but persistent band of curmudgeonly unwavering Shakespeare purists/academics. “One of the signatures of Newfoundland culture is that it is not performative but participatory,” she says.

The simple reality is culture on that isolated island in the North Atlantic does not end when one makes way for day-to-day life. Outside of the business world, the two joyously meet regularly on stage, at home and yes even occasionally on the job.

After all, in Elizabethan times Shakespeare’s works were hardly the exclusive rights of the rich and privileged. They weren’t then and shouldn’t be now.

Certainly Queen Elizabeth 1 (Bess) was intrigued and royally enthralled by the Bard. Yet most of those standing for hours-on-end through rain, sleet and sunshine in the open air were largely from the lower echelons, the poor folk with aching feet eager to catch his infamously thinly-veiled vulgarities, naughtiness in the boudoirs, cheeky tunes and bold bloody battle scenes, as well as his wit and wisdom.

In this particularly audacious adaptation of As You Like It, the intermingling of a wide range of Newfoundland and English accents offers up a truer picture of the sounds of the Elizabethan age. The chance-taking director, an enthusiastic cast of actors and onstage musicians, including button accordionist Keelan Purchase from Back Home are most for the part on-target for a devilishly clever peak at the past.

Keiley, the National Arts Centre’s artistic director and a returning Stratford Festival director (proving her mettle with Alice Through The Looking Glass and The Diary of Anne Frank) admittedly takes some huge chances this time around. The 16th Century European forest becomes the mostly rural Newfoundland of the 1980s with a nod to urban life in the first act.

The gamble was worth the risk, particularly for those even remotely familiar with the once Dominion of Newfoundland that Joey Smallwood dragged somewhat reluctantly into the Canadian federation in 1949.

Then there were others, like your humble critic, who actually lived there throughout the 1980s and, without coercion, became immersed in the increasingly vibrant and wonderfully adventurous culture.

With much less reliance upon those social demeaning Newfie jokes (save for their own self-effacing observations) during that decade, mainland Canadians, those south of the 49th parallel and even some throughout the European continent began seriously taking note of an arts community that both welled the rich past and reached into the future.

Keiley and company cleverly instill much of the flavour of a time that featured the glorious Celtic rock sounds of Noel Dinn’s Figgy Duff and The Wonderful Grand Band, a part folk/rock/traditional music ensemble led by the late Ron Hynes and bolstered by the comic genious of Greg Malone and the late Tommy Sexton.

Small wonder one of the opening night’s audience was theatre/film and TV actor Bob Joy, an early member of the theatrical troupe CODCO (Cod Company) founded in 1973 and later making its way to CBC-TV in the latter part of the ‘80s. Some of that ground-breaking company’s self-deprecating humour makes its way into Keiley’s production.

Taking numerous liberties with the original work, the director replaces royalty with oil barons while the aforementioned kitchen parties are hosted by rural folk and fishermen (women) who generously mix Shakespearean verbiage with colourful local expressions like “Hold on to my dingy”, transported presumably from the Rock by fisher-folks’ nets.

Festival veteran and a fine singer Robin Hutton tackles the role of the god of marriage Hymen with gusto, mischievously playing about with the audience prior to and throughout the production as the vocal leader of a folk/rock ensemble. Great Big Sea member Bob Hallett provides lively original compositions to the festivities.

Newfoundland humour and an unapologetically daring, more-open approach to the arts is in evidence from the moment audience members enter the lobby, stopping in wonder, grabbing those loot bags filled with nickel-and-dime store props. A simple gesture that makes them part of the production, not merely onlookers with an obligation to applaud, cheer, hoot and holler.

For all the theatrical radicalism on display, it’s more than a tad unfair to ignore some wonderful performances by the company: Cyrus Lane’s big haired and suitably heroic Orlando; John Kirkpatrick’s older brother Oliver with his initial nasty turn and later evangelical reformation; Newfoundland actress Petrina Bromley making a fine Festival debut as Rosalind and Scott Wentworth’s sinister Duke Frederick, whose bizarre blonde wig threatened to challenge the veteran actor for the spotlight.

At the end of nearly three hours of musical and theatric madness and mayhem, a standing ovation was unquestionably in order but did everyone there really grasp what they had just witnessed? It’s not a simple matter of just throwing kudos to actors, directors and musicians. One also has to credit fight director John Stead for staging a wild wrestling match that would make The Rock (the wrestler not the province), John Cena and WWE head honcho Vince McMahon green with envy.

On a personal note, my only real substantive complaint was with the contents of my grab bag. Although a vegetarian for nearly six years, my disappointment was profound as I searched in vain for scrunchins, lobster bits and cod tongues/cheeks. Perhaps, I’ll munch on the like whilst I amuse myself with an episode of Wonderful Grand Band tomfoolery, hidden in our vault of eclectic DVDs.

Filled with eye-popping gender-bender characters that offer more than a dash of Boy George and splash of other ‘80s icons along the way, wildly over-the-top performances, saucy asides, foot-stomping music and a lighthearted suggestion from Keiley to embrace both Shakespeare and Newfoundland equally with open arms, As You Like It may be a departure from the norm but what a night! ****1/2 out of five stars

Geoff Dale is a Woodstock-based freelance writer.

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