Now at the end of its 64th season, the Pendley Open Air Shakespeare Festival continues to surprise and delight – this time with some lively productions of ‘As You Like It’ and ‘Love’s Labours Lost’.
Of course, of equal delight is the elegant country house setting, with part of Pendley’s extensive grounds providing a serviceable stage, with a variety of foliage-bedecked entrances. The audience is accommodated in two temporary, raked stands – known as ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’. There are only two – unavoidable – downsides to this arrangement. Whichever stand you’re in, there’s always a metal strut that obscures your view of centre stage. And, it’s advisable to bring a cushion – to soften the effects of sitting on a hard plastic seat for some two and half hours. Such modern day comfort greatly helps you to concentrate on the play.
An added extra – which is well worthwhile if you have the time and can afford it – is to eat in Pendley Manor’s restaurant before the performance. The only concession the restaurant makes to the need for ‘fast food’ is that diners order all three courses of their dinner at the beginning of their meal. Although the menu is, understandably, restricted to three choices each for starters, mains and dessert, the quality of the food – from personal experience twice this season – is comparable with Pendley’s impressive best.
This year’s production of As You Like It’ moved the play to the 1960s, contrasting the repressive establishment of Duke Frederick’s court with the flower-powered liberty of his deposed elder brother’s court, which had been forced to live in the Forest of Arden. In a rather anachronistic blow for women’s rights – although, no doubt, Germaine Greer would have approved – this production saw ‘Duke Frederick’ undertake a sex-change but, otherwise, all characters were familiar to the Shakespeare traditionalist – and the play romped, in its usual topsy-turvey way, to its inevitable, if contrived, conclusion.
Love’s Labours Lost updated the action to 1913. Enchanted with the dreaming spires of Oxford, the King of Navarre and his three closest companions decided to reject the company of women and embark on a quasi-monastic life of learning. Their decision – and resolve – was challenged immediately by the daughter of the King of France and her friends coming on a visit. Mayhem ensued, with love letters going to those for whom they weren’t intended and, generally, merry japes being had by all. There was even some broad and genuinely amusing knock-about comedy towards the end of the evening – before a dark and unusual ending saw Navarre and his friends go to take part in the First World War. This sobering scene added a poignancy to Shakespeare’s ending – of all the overs agreeing to wait a year and a day before they think of getting married.
Despite what any of the performers might like to think – and they all gave excellent performances in both plays – the star of the show was an open-topped AC motor car, which made two appearances in Love’s Labours Lost. Actually, the car looked more like an AC 16/70 Sports Drophead Coupé of 1935, rather than one of the company’s first four wheeled cars – which were produced in 1913 – but, slightly anachronistic or not, the car certainly turned heads in the audience!
That’s one of the advantages of performing Shakespeare not just in the open air but in the grounds of a country house: there is the space to include real cars or, as in the early days of the Festival when show jumping commentator Dorian Williams owned Pendley, real horses. Long may that tradition continue!