It couldn't have been 'Macbeth', or 'Othello', nor 'King Lear' or 'The Tempest'. No, talk of storms, jealousy and murder would just not do. Not on a night like this, in a place like this.
Of course: it had to be 'As You Like it', a light farce often referred to as a pastoral Shakespeare comedy, which lends itself brilliantly to the setting.
In beautiful gardens and in bright June sunshine, the backdrop could not have proved more suitable for the Lord Chamberlain's Men in establishing Shakespeare's assertions of country over court. Better things happen in the Forest of Arden, in which the bulk of the play is set, than in the more profligate surroundings of the court of Duke Frederick, invidious usurper of Duke Senior. In one of the happiest endings of a play conceivable, all the characters' lives are eventually either redeemed or enhanced in the surroundings of the country.
The story is dominated by the relationship between Rosalind, arguably Shakespeare's most memorable, and perhaps most comedic female character, and Orlando. Their journey to courtship effectuates a witty if far-fetched series of circumstances.
Having been banished from the cruel environment of the court by Duke Frederick, Rosalind and her cousin Celia ( Duke Frederick's daughter) flee to the country, having decided to dress and act as men. There, the two women encounter Orlando again, having already met at a wrestling match at court. Rosalind maintains her new identity as she delves deeper in to the psyche of her new lover, enabling her to get closer.
By the end love has cast its spell everywhere and the majority of the characters get married to each other. Even the customary Shakespeare fool is in on the act, marrying the parochial Audrey, intellectually his opposite, though whether he really wants to is unclear.
The women were a triumph and the cast did some sterling work in taking on multi-parts. Of course, there were no women actors in the company, as it was in Shakespeare's day, adding even more spice to the already quite complex gender implications of the play. Phebe was imbued with a touch of the adolescent teenage girl about her, and was brought to life brilliantly by Greg Baxter; Isaac Stanmore's Rosalind was played with camp energy, and at times demonstrated an incredible and hilarious glimmer of facial expression.
It is curious to try to surmise what Shakespeare meant to do by messing about with the identities and sexes within the relationships, other than make us laugh. Undoubtedly though, he has made Rosalind as the central figure in 'As You Like It' to make a serious point. Whilst being unremarkable today, it can only be imagined how bold a suggestion that was in the 1600s, when women weren't even allowed to act. She ends the show with an unlikely epilogue.
The Bard likes to throw in an anomaly and in this play it is Jacques, the melancholy one. Baxter again delivered his famous and rousing 'All the World's a stage' speech with assurance and a touch of morosity, so that it seemed all the world might be listening. In those few moments, the birds stopped singing and the play surrendered its sheen; those who say that 'As You Like It' is just a bit of fluff were suddenly stopped in their tracks.
It was a superb evening of entertainment: colourful, funny and accessible, delivered by a group of hard working and gifted actors. It just confirms how many levels there are to reach the top echelons of the acting ladder. The part- shuffling was economical and seamless, carried off no better than by Nicholas Stafford, who took on the diverse characters of Charles, Audrey, Duke Senior and Corin to hilarious effect, as well as taking on programme responsibilities in the interval! Hard to imagine Helen Mirren handing out programmes or speaking to audiences outside the Gielgud in the middle of a performance, unless they were drummers making too much noise of course.
So all's well that ends well in the country and the audience in Harrogate- deck-chaired and jovial, sustained by their home brought picnic sandwiches, cheap wine and mini rolls- can even forgive Shakespeare one of his slimiest endings. It seemed that on a gorgeous summer's evening such as this was, it couldn't have ended anything less than happily.
We'll save Macbeth for The Crucible.
The Lord Chamberlain's Men with 'As You Like It', is on tour now.
James' book, 'Shot and A Ghost' is available from willstrop.co.uk or on kindle.