Performing Shakespeare in the open air, where the audience and players are at the mercy of the elements, is a tradition stretching from his own Globe Theatre to New York’s star-studded annual summer Shakespeare in Central Park festival.

Chester is a relative newcomer, having first staged Much Ado About Nothing last summer in Grosvenor Park. They returned this summer to present a new family-orientated commission, Merlin and the Woods of Time, and the perennially popular As You Like It.

The story, for those unfamiliar, goes something like this; family feuds lead to the main characters being exiled from court and fleeing to the Forest of Arden.

The heroine, Rosalind, conceals her identity by dressing as a boy, encounters her would-be lover and fellow exile Orlando, convinces him to woo her as if she were a woman while dressing like a man, attracts some unwanted attention from a feisty shepherdess, reunites with her exiled father and throws off her disguise to the surprise of everyone. Quarrels are forgiven, lots of people get married and as Shakespeare himself said elsewhere, all’s well that ends well.

The staging was well choreographed with a minimum of props and using every inch of space; you were never quite sure from which direction a character might be entering the stage in the next scene. Rosalind’s encounters with multiple suitors was staged as tightly as a dance.

Costumes were a mashup of Renaissance and contemporary styles; capes and doublets are present but skinny jeans take the place of hose. I never thought I would see jeggings on stage in Shakespeare, but in the Forest of Arden, anything goes.

The cast was very strong and had a solid handle on the material. Two notable performances included Nicholas Asbury’s take on Jaques, the melancholy courtier who delivers the famous “All the world’s a stage/and men and women merely players” speech with an air of gravity that contrasted nicely with Paul-Ryan Carberry’s motley fool, Touchstone, whose comic ramblings were a cross between Vizzini (“Inconceivable!”) from The Princess Bride and a BBC3 comedy character. Odd, but effective.

And so to the setting. Creating an intimate theatrical space out of a corner of manicured Grosvenor Park is no mean feat, but appears effortlessly a part of the landscape. No spectator is more than a few metres from the performance and audience interaction is part and parcel of the experience.

Almost everyone brought some form of picnic to enjoy before the play and the atmosphere was good-natured and relaxed. Chester Performs is to be highly commended for establishing such an attractive and successful event in only two years.

Having an open air theatre this good such a short distance from Liverpool is a gift and hopefully it will become a regular summer fixture.

All images courtesy of Mark McNulty

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