As You Like It at Corpus Christi College

IMG_1421cast of AYLI

This quin centenary production for the College opened on May 5th 2017 directed by John Retallack and Renata Allen. Staff and students were involved so the whole community including the recently retired President Richard Cowardine,  as well as the college gardener David Leake, Classics Fellow Neil McClynn and many students from Corpus and other colleges. Review from Daily Information 17.5.17

Simply Joyous by Andrea Hopkins

This production is unmissable. Run out the door/get online right now and snap up the few remaining tickets. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill student production. For one thing, student productions are not usually directed by the likes of the awesome John Retallack and Renata Allen (Google them if not familiar); nor do they usually cast renowned academics in crucial roles in addition to the student performers.

As the title suggests, Shakespeare felt constrained by the tastes of his audience to make old-fashioned romantic happy-endings to his comedies – to quote A Midsummer Night’s Dream “Jack shall have Jill / Nought shall go ill / The man shall have his mare again / And all shall be well.” He indulged this taste but made it very clear that this is a convention and not something to be expected in the real world by making these denouements blatantly artificial, implausible and occasionally unsatisfactory. AYLI is not one of the ‘difficult’ comedies seething with unresolved conflicts, but it does have a rather odd structure. Almost all the story happens in Act I. Once everyone has arrived at the Forest, the plot sort of stops and there are a couple of acts where nothing much happens except for very witty conversations about life, love, time, free will, philosophy, etc. In the hands of inferior productions these scenes can be frightfully tedious – it’s hard, really hard, to bring them to life, to make them alive, relevant and funny for a modern audience. That’s what this production triumphantly succeeded in doing. There was not a moment’s ennui; the audience was wholly engaged, seduced really, into swallowing the wonderful fifth act solutions. The whole experience was simply joyous.

This is a company of players drawn from the whole community – the production is part of the 500th anniversary celebrations of Corpus Christi and includes in its cast the outgoing President of the College, Richard Carwardine (as Duke Senior), his wife Linda Kirk (as wicked Duke Frederick), the college gardener since 1979 David Leake (a wonderfully moving performance as Adam), renowned classicist Neil McLynn as Corin, who gets many of the best lines, plus student actors and musicians drawn from the wider university as well as Corpus. I can’t emphasise this enough – it’s hard to create a true ensemble, and despite some extraordinary logistical problems, they succeeded in doing so. Nobody was cast because they’re a friend of the director – all were excellent. The young people without exception were extraordinarily talented and stunningly beautiful. I haven’t space to mention everyone but Georgie Murphy was a spirited yet vulnerable Rosalind, Molly Willett made an exquisite Celia, and Christopher Page was a splendidly angry and moody Orlando. Touchstone, played by the astonishing Beth Evans, had such energy and charisma – she lights up the stage and steals every scene she is in. There were many joyously funny moments in this play but I also saw the glint of tears in many grown persons’ eyes – it isn’t played just for laughs and there’s a sense of the fragility of good conduct, of human decency that is especially resonant right now. It is a fantasy, and we know it is, but it’s an important, empowering fantasy.

The setting for this production is exquisite. This is a ‘promenade’ performance, which in practice means that the audience gets a delightful tour of the college: from the beautiful gardens in the early evening, to the chapel and finally the Hall with all the movement between being beautifully managed. AYLI has a whopping five songs in it, making it practically a musical! This production was fortunate enough to get its mitts on the Howard Goodall score, which means absolutely ravishing tunes performed with breathtaking harmonies and pretty instrumentation under the presiding genius of musical director Dr Katherine Pardee and her outstandingly talented musicians. The vocalists are also stunning, and I must put in a special word of praise for Laura Coppinger, a late substitute for the original soprano who left Oxford to turn professional. This was for our gain because Coppinger is awesome – such a voice! – rich, golden, resonant, warm, reminiscent of the young Joan Baez, only better.

It’s worth noting that the price of your ticket (£25 or £10 for students) includes a glass of wine at the interval which is frankly delicious wine that you do actually want to drink. At the end of the play you are invited to enter the Hall with a glass of sparkling in your hand, and after the applause you can mingle with the cast members and chat to them.