A picnic and a pastoral romp: “As you like it”

Last week Friday, we met friends of ours at the open air theatre in Maynardville, Wynberg, to watch a performance of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”.

We arrived an hour before the show, so that we could still have a picnic on the green lawns of the park surrounding the stage, and to catch up on events in each other’s lives since our last get-together to the accompaniment of a glass of vino.

Our perfect picnic spot

Our perfect picnic spot

Our spot was under a beautiful tree.

In the shelter of a perfect tree

In the shelter of a perfect tree

Spread out on our picnic blanket, with the men relaxing in comfortable folding chairs (with a handy little nook on the armrest for a wine glass), we munched our way through grilled chicken, a big mixed salad with olives and feta cheese, ciabatta and baguette.

There were a couple of those strikingly patterned Egyptian geese wandering around.

A lonely Egyptian goose looking for its family

A lonely Egyptian goose looking for its family

And, of course, a few very noisy and squawky guinea fowl came in to gatecrash the party.

A guinea fowl

A guinea fowl

And lots of other picnickers, spread out across the expanse of lawns.

Other picnickers

Other picnickers

Just after 20h00 (the show was due to start at 20h15), we joined the queue to enter the enclosure. The whole area is open air, both the stage and the ‘auditorium’, so I’d brought a blanket and a wind-breaker in case it got too chilly. And remembering that the plastic chairs were always frightfully uncomfortable after a couple of minutes, we had all brought cushions to sit on.

The stage was surrounded by long bamboo poles, which were swaying slightly in the wind. A group of dancers – the spirits of the forest – were moving slowly and gently in and out of the poles, peering out at the audience, and seeming to watch us as we arrived and settled down to watch the performance.

“As You Like It” is a pastoral comedy set almost entirely in the ‘Forest of Arden’. In this production directed by Geoffrey Hyland, the forest was envisioned as an almost idyllic garden of Eden peopled by a community of gentle, sweet-natured hippies from the flower power generation of the ’60s and ’70s (minus all the negative aspects of that era). They sing, dance, play music and romp about the forest, living close to nature.

Initially, I struggled a little to attune my ear to the different way of speaking, and the artificial accents of some of the characters were just a tad irritating and tricky to follow. My favourite character by far was witty Touchstone, the court jester, who always has a clever answer or snappy riposte for everything.

I found the plot of this play quite confusing, and not only because of the various mistaken identities and elaborate gender reversals so beloved of Shakespeare, but because there are so many characters to keep track of. There are Orlando de Boys and Oliver de Boys, a good brother and a bad brother respectively; there are cousins Rosalind and Celia who dress up as a young man Ganymede and his sister Aliena; there is a good Duke Ferdinand who has been banished to the forest of Arden by his brother, the bad Duke Frederick; there is Sylvius, a shepherd who is sick in love with disdainful Phebe, a shepherdess…. People fall in love with each other, go through trials and tribulations, and four couples finally get married. Phew!

I won’t give away the details of the plot (you can find it on the Wikipedia or on Spark Notes if you really want it), but I will say that the performances were excellent – so go and see it if you get a chance!

Incidentally, this is also the play with one of the most famous soliloquies of Shakespeare about the seven ages of man/woman. It is delivered by the melancholic Jacques:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.”  (Act II, Scene vii, lines 139-166)

We were really fortunate with the weather: there were just a handful of clouds and a little bit of wind, from which we were completely sheltered inside the enclosure. By the end of the performance (about 11pm), the night sky had turned velvet-black with a golden glow from the reflected city lights. And above us all hung a bright, luminous almost-full moon.

What a glorious evening under the stars!

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