Evelyn O’Malley is researching audiences, Shakespeare, place and environment for her PhD at the University of Exeter. In summer 2014, she followed a tour of Taking Flight Theatre Company’s As You Like It to parks and gardens in Wales and the South West of England, speaking to audience members about their experiences.

 

Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

It’s hot and Taking Flight Theatre Company is leading us into Merthyr Tydfil’s Arden, in a promenade production of As You Like It. High up out of the town, the leafy clearing where we’re gathered says nothing of industry, a castle built on mining; success, decline and depression. The actors have been rehearsing here for weeks. They know the park, as do all the people I speak to. Walking dogs. Walking children. What’s my accent, they want to know? Ice-creamy kids in swimsuits join our small group of adventurers and we set off. When we go into Arden, we’re all explorers together.

 

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Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court? (2, 1, 1-4)

Jacques sings under a tree and Orlando enters through the brambles. A silver Honda ignores the traffic cones and interrupts. We smirk, wait and speak to strangers. Splash pools, burger vans, squirrels and Shakespeare.

 

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Did you dare to sit in the forest? What kind of ground did you sit on? So many gnats under the trees. I never have a picnic chair. Twigs, pebbles and bits of plastic stick to my sticky legs sticking out of shorts.

‘It makes you see the park in a different light’, they tell me.

 

Thompson’s Park, Cardiff

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A week later, Arden is in Thompson’s Park, Cardiff. The summer is still hot and the audience assembles inside the gates around a fountain. Someone tells me that she has lived in Cardiff all her life but has never been in this park. We start near the bandstand, on theatre seats that are bouncy, short and neat with heaps of legroom. A man points to a frog hopping from his sandal. ‘Cool’, says the boy with him, chasing after it with a phone camera.

 

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head (2, 1, 12-14)

 

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Now we’re up and off into Arden via a path through the woods. I spy love-letters tacked to trees. Actors’ voices echo back from the terraced houses beyond the railings. The city isn’t far away. Merthyr prepared me but Arden is new again in Cardiff. I don’t know this park and I don’t know where we’re going. Not even the lady that runs through this park every morning knows where we’re going.

 

O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books
And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character;
That every eye which in this forest looks
Shall see thy virtue witness’d every where (3, 2, 5-8)

 

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We stop for the Duke’s feast and I crouch in the long grass behind the park bench where it’s all happening. Sinking in, I’m comfortable in the give of this bit of wildness in a city park. The audience spreads in front of the bench and, though I think I’m safe behind, watching, Orlando careers over the hill, carving a path and taking me by surprise. I remove a bug from my hair, leave it in the grass and we’re off exploring the forest again.

‘It makes you see the park in a different light’, they tell me here too.

 

Blaise Castle, Bristol Shakespeare Festival

It is the end of July and Arden has come to the gardens of Blaise for the last performance of the tour. The cast are more weather-worn than they were at Cyfarthfa, and I need a jumper. An administrative glitch means that our journey is stalled for fellow travellers returning from faraway toilets.

We’re in a small, walled amphitheatre. It’s dry and comfortable and we sit together on steps carved from earth and planted with grass. This feels formal, structured and a bit like a theatre – a court even. What kind of adventure can happen here, I wonder? And where is Arden?

 

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Orlando escapes, Rosalind is banished, disguised, and off we go through wrought-iron gates into a landscaped garden, into the woods; strangers, visitors and audience members; temporary dwellers in our temporary Arden. We’re all explorers together.

 

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing. (2, 1, 15-17)

Some of the people I speak to afterwards walk, run and play at Blaise on other days.

‘It makes you see the park in a different light’, they tell me.