In hindsight, the idea was a little out there, with director Daryl Cloran not exactly convinced he was crafting a hit with Bard on the Beach’s 2018 re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Reached at his home base of Edmonton, where he heads up the Citadel Theatre, Cloran recalls plenty of scrambling with musical director Ben Elliott after they set out to combine the words of the Bard with the music of the Beatles.
“It wasn’t until our first audience that we knew we had something special,” he remembers. “Up until that point we were sort of building it on the fly. It was the idea of building the plane while you’re flying it. We were moving songs around, trying to figure things out in rehearsals. And it was such a busy, ridiculous rehearsal process that when we finally got it in front of an audience, and got the reaction that we did, that we went, ‘Oh! This is something really special!’ ”
That might be underselling things a little.
Working 25 Beatles songs into one of Shakespeare’s most-performed comedies, and set in the cellophane-flowers and marmalade-skies 60s, As You Like It became an instant smash when it debuted at Bard on the Beach in 2018. Once word got out, the fun didn’t stop on the West Coast, with Cloran taking the production on the road to Edmonton, and later to Chicago and Milwaukee.
“The focus at the beginning was ‘Let’s just build a great show for Bard,’” Cloran reflects. “There was no talk ever of it going anywhere else. When it caught on at Bard, it was like ‘Oh, there’s really something here.’ So I brought it to the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, and then Chicago and Milwaukee wanted to do it because they’d seen it in Vancouver.
“That was a new thing for Bard,” he adds. “We had to start thinking about ‘How do we tour shows, and what would that even look like?’ It’s been a huge learning curve, but it’s been awesome because, so often, you spend so long on a show and then you only get one go.’ ”
A big reason As You Like It is returning to Bard on the Beach this year is that audiences have been clamouring for it since the first run.
The re-thinking of the play started with Cloran thinking about how the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” somehow captured the spirit of Shakespeare’s iconic work, which deals with romantic entanglements, banishments to a mythical forest, mistaken identity, and, um, wrestling.
“Narratively, ‘All You Need Is Love’ is the song that really connected things for me, because the play is so much about various forms of love,” the director opines. “It’s not just the lovers that meet each other in the forest, but the love of a mother and her daughter, and things like love as loyalty. It’s a nice through-line.”
“And the more I listened to the Beatles music, the more I thought about the journey these naive lovers take,” he continues. “They go from singing songs like ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ to meeting these philosophical people in the forest who kind of mirror the eventual complexity of the Beatles’ songwriting. It’s like there’s a nice parallel between the play and the Beatles’ journey as songwriters.”
For the production, Cloran excised good chunks of Shakespeare’s text, replacing words with songs that not only serve as instantly relatable pop-culture touchstones, but also move the plot forward.
“If you’re going to cut a monologue, or a famous piece of Shakespearian text, it has to be supported with something that’s going to do the same thing musically,” Cloran says. “It’s not hard to figure out what to do when a character comes in and goes ‘A fool, a fool—a fool in the forest’—that he should soon afterwards sing ‘The Fool on the Hill’. That’s low-hanging fruit that works perfectly.
“But there was the pressure of making sure that, not only did we use the songs well in the story, but also that it wasn’t just like a jukebox musical where we tell the story for a bit, pause for our favourite Beatles song, and then we pick up the story. Finally, there was the pressure of performing the Beatles’ songs well.”
That work is done by both a live on-stage band, and, of course, by the paisley-perfect cast, which hits the stage dressed like they’ve just arrived from a Painted Ship show in circa-67 Kitsilano. And if that’s all not awesome enough, there’s also pre-show wrestling, which, weirdly, was part of Shakespeare’s original version of As You Like It. For the Bard on the Beach production, the reference point is gloriously trashy 60s and 70s All-Star Wrestling, which—featuring characters like Bulldog Brown and Mr. X—took place locally at the PNE Gardens back in the day, as well as Saturday afternoons on BCTV.
“It’s a good leaping off for something that’s right there in the play—Shakespeare put the wrestling in there,” Cloran says. “The pre-show wrestling sets the tone nicely for the audience to be able to come in and see something happening as soon as they get there. It also sets up the world of the conflicts that follow. It’s a great way to get into the show.”
A show, he adds, that has evolved since it became a surprise hit across North America.
“It’s so great to be back where we started,” Cloran says. “But for people that saw it the first time there are some really great changes. Not only have we moved around a few songs and changed a little bit of the story, it’s also a brand new set. When we did it in 2018 it was in rep with Macbeth and so we had to build a set that worked for both of those shows. When we did it here in Edmonton, we were able to build the set that we’ve since toured around Chicago and Milwaukee. That set is coming to Bard and it’s full of big LED panels and flashing lights and the like. You’re getting a big sparkly musical.”
That the music is as timeless as the words of William Shakespeare is a blessing.
“People of almost any age have experience with at least some of the Beatles songs,” Cloran observes. “So this is definitely one of those musicals that sends you out of the theatre singing at the end—it’s like you really can’t help yourself.”