For over half a century, the annual Shakespeare play at Ludlow Castle was the greatest theatrical fixture in Shropshire’s social calendar. Stage stars loved ‘doing Ludlow’. Crowds flocked to the town. But, the changing economics of the 21st century seriously challenged its sustainability. When all was said and done, it was a large and expensive cuckoo’s egg, deposited in a very modest nest.
The lights finally went out six year ago. But not for ever.
For they shone very brightly again last night, illuminating just the sort of Shakespeare Ludlow now needs; a production that has sprung from the community rather than been imposed upon it. It may not be as prestigious as its lofty predecessor…or as tightly honed…but it is certainly no less professional. And its spirited homespun style; it’s energy, enthusiasm and entertainment value won a standing ovation from a hundred-strong first night audience.
‘Here To There Productions’ are Ludlow-based and no strangers to the Fringe. ‘As You Like It’ is simply staged, on a low platform in the Outer Bailey. All the magic of the castle is still there to behold…the sun-warmed walls, the quarrelling jackdaws, the rippling echoes, the distant bells. What the company provides is a highly imaginative production – complete with some stellar acting from a memorably quirky cast.
Director Vivian Lesley Jones has injected the play with the music and fashion of the 60s. It’s been done before, but it still works a treat…especially the carefully constructed musical jokes. The bare-torsoed wrestler Charles (Morgan Rees-Davies) walks into the ring to Ben Andrews’ distorted guitar fanfare of ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones. As Orlando pins his love notes to the forest trees, we hear The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights In White Satin’ lyric, “Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send”. A Beatles harmonica becomes the love token that ties the play together.
Costume Supervisor Joyce Marshall has taken Orlando’s line “the fashions of these times’ to heart…consequently the characters look so 60s too.
Mark Topping’s foppish Touchstone is a fashion crisis in purple shirt and orange trousers. Cruel Oliver (Edward Loboda) is in a cold, grey collarless suit. Andrew Whittle’s Duke Ferdinand is a dead ringer for Tony Hancock in homburg hat and lugubrious disposition, whilst veteran actor Martin Tomms plays old Adam as an amalgam of at least three Doctor Whos; Hartnell, Troughton and McCoy.
Leading boldly from the front are the exceptionally dynamic duo of Amey Woodhall and Beth Wilcox as the head girl-ish Rosalind and the fiery, classroom comic Celia; kitted out in the sort of chequered minidresses Lulu used to wear.
Shakespeare gives Celia liberty and Rosalind responsibility, but the actors very skilfully turn that tendency around as Rosalind drops her love-guard. Their paring is as good as any I’ve seen in those roles; simply filling the Castle bailey with their vibrant personalities and acting acumen. As dusk fell and the lights kicked in, so the rest of the cast rose up to meet them; each finding jokes Shakespeare probably didn’t quite realise he’d written. Nadia Devereux’s common, Welsh, Phoebe was particularly appealing.
The play happily careered towards an increasingly comic finale and, in true Ludlow tradition, St Lawrence’s church bells chimed in – right on cue – just as the four lovesick couples made their vows. The magic was complete.
The old ground has been cleared and a new seed has been sown…from which a whole new era of Ludlow Shakespeare productions must surely flourish.