Review: Loving OVO’s immersive production of As You Like It

Vince McLoughlin and Emma Wright in OVO's As You Like It. Picture: Pavel Gonevski

Vince McLoughlin and Emma Wright in OVO's As You Like It. Picture: Pavel Gonevski - Credit: PAVEL GONEVSKI

Deborah Heath reviews As You Like It by OVO at the Maltings Arts Theatre in St Albans.

Chris Baker and Charlie Clee in OVO's As You Like It. Picture: Pavel Gonevski

Chris Baker and Charlie Clee in OVO's As You Like It. Picture: Pavel Gonevski - Credit: PAVEL GONEVSKI

It takes a pretty special theatre company to even attempt a production of As You Like It, but an outstanding one to ace it as OVO have done.

In this groundbreaking production, we were taken on a hippy inspired interactive theatrical journey that was so exciting it left me unable to sleep.

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare's lesser performed comedies.

The opening is gritty and violent, and the remainder light-hearted, romantic and musical.

This latter part, set in the romantic forest of Arden, has a somewhat disjointed structure consisting of a series of comedy vignettes which makes the play hard to stage in a cohesive manner.

However, talented directors Adam Nichols and Janet Podd made the bold decision to embrace this feature - moving the audience to follow the action.

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At one point we were led through the back corridors of the Maltings and out into the car park for a terrifying yet funny fight scene.

The concrete setting emphasised the stark, elemental undertones of the scene.

The way actors involved us as the fight audience in the action made it so real - when one of them was forced up against the rails, perilously close to falling tens of feet down into St Albans was knife-edge stuff.

Immersive theatre can be gimmicky but in this case it complemented the play's themes, eg personal journeys of discovery.

Our romantic leads, Rosalind and Orlando (played to perfection by Faith Turner and Charlie Clee), banished from their homes disguise themselves and travel to the forest of Arden.

The audience travelled with them, honestly having no idea what would happen next; it was tremendously exciting!

When we eventually ended up in the auditorium, transformed into a 1960s hippy commune, the atmosphere created by the beautiful set and interaction between cast and audience was electric.

The live band, Food of Love, interacted with the characters.

I particularly liked Audrey (Emma Wright) requesting and then singing 'Je t'aime' as she woos jester Touchstone.

This decision to replace the Bard's own verses with songs of the 1960s was a great move - it was the Summer of Love and anything could happen in this magical forest... even a tiger attack!

I was delighted to see Lucy Crick and Faith Turner working together again - they are a superb team.

The majority of the cast were outstanding but a particular mention goes to Jill Priest as troubled writer Jaques, a character who can often be stereotyped but in this case was made entirely believable; played with great nuances of sensitivity.

Will Pattle, as Sylvius the lovelorn shepherd, was so sweet and thoroughly deserved to get the girl.

At the end we were invited to dance with the cast to the live band, a lovely touch that celebrated OVO's interpretation; characters and audience were experiencing it all together - such a lovely touch.

As You Like It holds a special place in my heart as I once appeared in it myself, therefore I am very hard to please!

However, in this ambitious interpretation, OVO treated me to the most enjoyable Shakespeare comedy performance I have ever seen. Thank you!

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