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Redbridge amateur dramatics group tackle a Shakespeare comedy as they like it

PUBLISHED: 10:59 29 October 2015 | UPDATED: 10:59 29 October 2015

Jenni Allen and Phil Clarke rehearsing as Rosalind and Orlando in the Wanstead Players production of As You Like It. Picture Sarah Jones

Jenni Allen and Phil Clarke rehearsing as Rosalind and Orlando in the Wanstead Players production of As You Like It. Picture Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones

Wanstead Players director Peter Wilson talks to Ann-Marie Abbasah about their rich history – and why the Bard still matters

Members of the Wanstead Players rehearsing their production of Shakespeare's play Members of the Wanstead Players rehearsing their production of Shakespeare's play "As You Like It". Picture Sarah Jones

It takes guts to perform a work of Shakespeare for the stage – especially the same play in the same week as the National Theatre.

But the Wanstead Players have risen bravely to the challenge and created a production that the Bard himself would be proud of.

As You Like It opens tonight (Thurs) at the Kenneth More Theatre, Oakfield Road, Ilford for three nights and features an original score.

Director Peter Wilson, spoke to the Recorder about why – following the Globe’s successful summer production and the National casting a long shadow – would an amateur theatre company tackle such a feat.

“The answer is simple,” he said.

“The play has so much to offer and is capable of being interpreted and staged in so many varied and excited ways.”

Indeed, he has made full use of his creative licence by setting the play in modern dress and making minor cuts in the text to improve “clarity and understanding”.

Fans of England’s most famous poet may recoil in horror at such an admission. Just the word Shakespeare itself seems to strike wonder in children and adults alike.

Peter said: “I have tried to keep that firmly in mind.

“These plays were written to be performed, not treated as ‘holy writ’ for studying over in dusty rooms.”

The play is believed to have been first written in 1599 and first performed in 1603.

It follows heroine Rosalind as she flees persecution in her uncle’s court to the Forest of Arden, accompanied by her cousin Celia, where she finds love.

The forest plays host to a variety of memorable characters most famously, melancholy Jaques, a traveller who delivers many of Shakespeare’s most celebrated speeches.

The Players adopt a 21st century approach to the story. Lines are delivered directly at the audience and the roles of female characters have been emphasised.

Peter said: “My approach has been to fully acknowledge that female characters are being played by women and, in a play where gender is all-important, to make sure that the audience never forgets that.

The Wanstead Players are a talented and long-established group, having formed 91 years ago – making it one of the oldest theatre groups in East London.

Still going strong with three productions per year at the Kenneth More Theatre.

It has introduced some of the UK’s well-known talents such as EastEnders’ Ricky Groves, Louise Jameson, Don Henderson and Tony Robinson to the public.

Like other amateur dramatic groups its members are mainly women, which led to the production’s first problem.

“Changing the sex of some of the characters solved that, without in any way detracting from the poetry and charm of the original,” said Peter.

The Players’ stared in 1923, when Edgar Bishop brought together a group of amateur thespian friends.

At a time when audiences wore formal evening dress to the theatre, membership grew by “invitation” only.

The group first appeared as the Wanstead Players in And So To Bed in 1929.

The outbreak of the First World War forced the company to abandon its art, resuming productions in 1947.

Members have staged musicals, dramas and farces by authors such as Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton.

Membership ranges from senior citizens to teenagers and despite being an amateur group it has an impressive crew of backstage set designers and engineers.

Peter added: “There are more songs in this piece that any other Shakespeare play.

“We are fortunate in having original music composed by Jenni Allen Clarke for this production.”

Jenni also stars as Rosalind in the play which explores what “true love” and “pretend” means.

“This is part of the fun and interest in working on such a play,” he said.

“Finding out what this means and making this accessible to a modern audience.”

With dramatic flair he implores those who have not experienced a Shakespeare play before to give the Players a chance.

“All that we ask is that you risk a couple of hours of your life,” he said.

“Who knows, you may even enjoy it and if you have seen the play before come and have a look at it in a different guise.”

Matinee and evening performances cost £10 with concession rates available.

For more information visit wansteadplayers.org.uk or kmtheatre.co.uk to book tickets.


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