An English Summer Evening – As You Like It in Guildford
Hey nonny no – today’s the day when we kiss goodbye to the British Summer. Sixteen days of heatwave brought to a fiery, watery end by thunder, lightning and torrential rain.
True, there are a few more weeks ahead before what we formally recognise as summer gives way to autumn. But this will be the period we Brits will remember when we think back on 2013. Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, England stomping all over the Aussies in the first two matches of the Ashes series. Phil Mickelson, gentleman golfer beloved of the Brits, winning the Open. And that not quite British Kenyan cyclist Chris Froome winning the Tour de France across the Channel. Not to mention the ludicrous fuss surrounding the birth of the new third in line to the British throne.
It’s been the summer when the jetstream decided to do us a favour and plonked itself west of the country, allowing a big fat anticyclone to kid us into thinking that we’re in southern France.
For me it’s been quite special because it’s the first time for a while that I’ve spent the month in my home country. Ironic that an escape from the torrid summer heat of Bahrain should leave one gasping for a spot of air-conditioning during these hot sweaty nights.
I will remember the month not just for the traditional set pieces – politicians glowing like lobsters at set-piece sporting events, creating stories out of nothing, doing their best to tell us how awful things are, or how we are on the road to recovery, depending on their political persuasion.
My highlight was an open-air staging of Shakespeare’s As You Like It – a typically English event in a typically English town – Guildford in Surrey.
I’ve always enjoyed watching – and on rare occasions performing – open-air theatre. At school we had a Greek theatre where we staged big summer productions. Brecht’s Galileo, for example, and the Bacchae of Euripides, in which I played Pentheus, the king who got too curious about the female Dionysiac rites and was decapitated by his mother (played by a teenage Harriet Walter) for his audacity.
At this time of year you can go to all manner of open air theatre events. Regents Park in London, where I saw a fabulous performance of the Pirates of Penzance. The Minack Theatre, built into a Cornish cliff, where I went to George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. Some of the venues are purpose-built. Others, like the school garden where I made my stage debut at the age of ten as the hole in the wall in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, temporarily transformed.
The Guildford show was at the College of Law, in the gardens of an elegant Jacobean mansion surrounded by the ghastly school buildings thrown up in the Sixties by some dumb architect whose idea of sympathetic blending was akin to a requiem mass by Black Sabbath. Who taught these people their trade?
But ignore the monstrosities and focus on the mansion with its woody grounds, and you have the perfect setting for one of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies.
The audience was middle class and mostly middle aged – a typical cross-section of the arts-loving burghers of Guildford, who like their theatre safe. The youth of the town were seemed to be occupied in the two drinking holes in the centre, where scantily dressed teenagers performed their version of the Bacchae.
Meanwhile their parents gathered a few miles down the road, with rugs, camping seats and discreet bottles of wine. It’s a shame that young audiences are often dragged along to Shakespeare plays under duress – usually because one of them is on the reading list for the current year’s English literature curriculum. Maybe in this case it was because the state school term ends this week, or perhaps because it was a Monday, but director Tom Littler’s young cast played largely to a youth-free audience.
Littler’s production was set in July 1913, a year away from the war that ripped out the fabric of a Britain that had known little conflict within its shores for seventy years. A duke has usurped his brother. Two noble siblings fight each other. The main female protagonists – daughters of the present and former duke – take the stage in an oppressive court with suffragette sashes, while in the forest of Arden, the exiled duke and his entourage play cricket among the shepherds and farm labourers.
The play’s themes are love, forgiveness, redemption and the purity of nature. The forest heals the conflicts and liberates the heroines, who end up in the arms of the brothers. The usurper duke repents his actions, and the exile is restored to his previous eminence.
The whole cast attacked the play with verve and joy. None more so than Matt Pinches as Touchstone the court fool, who accompanies the cousins into exile. He’s an outstanding comic actor who deserves a much wider audience. Rhiannon Summers was a luminous Rosalind, deftly weaving her boyish façade into her passion for the downtrodden Orlando.
The Guildford Shakespeare Company, which produced the play, is one of many companies all over the country that keep grassroots theatre alive. They rely on individual and corporate sponsors, as well as the efforts of many volunteers, to deliver high quality professional theatre. They also run classes and workshops for all ages.
Theatre, far more than TV and film, is art that you can see, feel and sometimes touch from close range. It’s very tempting for educational bureaucrats struggling with funding constraints to cut back on everything outside the core school curriculum. So if there are cuts to be made, they are likely to fall on the performing arts rather than sport, in which the politicians have invested so much of their prestige. Teachers who produce school plays devote vast amounts of their own time to making them happen. Without the complementary efforts of groups like the GSC, it would be understandable if many schools – and volunteer teachers – decided not to bother with theatre at all.
Which would be sad, because being able to perform in front of others is an invaluable life skill. And for me, a thriving theatre culture is the mark of a civilised society.