As You Like It @ The Swan Theatre
‘As You Like It’ is my least favourite Shakespeare play to watch. It’s interesting enough to read, and funny, but every production I’ve seen of it – the BBC film, the recent RSC production, the Christine Edzard film, even the half hour animated version – has left me bored. Having seen some negative reviews of the new production by Sheffield Theatres before last night, I was worried that, yet again, I was going to be disappointed by an ‘As You Like It’.
In some ways, I was. The first half was slow, dull, uninspired. The audience were laughing, as Stratford audiences are often wont to do, at the jokes they knew they were supposed to laugh at, regardless of whether they were delivered in a funny way or not. The director was throwing in lots of clever little tricks, but the play left me as cold as the wintry set.
However, at some point in the second half, I found myself laughing, and realised that despite my reservations, at some point the production had actually become quite enjoyable. I can’t pin it down, much as I try, but here are some thoughts about the good, the bad and the ugly of the play.
THE UGLY: Orlando. It sounds cruel, but I really disliked Sam Troughton’s Orlando. His sunken eyes and facial grimaces made him quite unattractive to look at, to a point where you had to wonder why Rosalind had any interest in him. He reminded me of no-one so much as Lex Shrapnel, who played John Tablot and Richmond in the history plays. However, while Lex’s epic style worked in the histories context, Orlando isn’t a character who benefits from seeming – frankly – obnoxious. He wasn’t appalling, and his early scenes were good, but once in the forest he appeared to be acting in quite a different play to everyone else.
THE BAD: At least, in terms of the play’s less scrupulous characters. The court was a totalitarian state that people had to be let in and out of, through a huge sliding door that saw courtiers shut out into a freezing fantasy world. The evil Duke moved about in a wheelchair, and upon Orlando’s flight searchlights swept the auditorium as he barked through a megaphone. It was quite an effective idea, that gave the forest of Arden by contrast a fairytale feel all to itself.
Less good, however, was the ending, which went on forever and a day- as first the couples were paired off, then a country dance was had, interrupted in order to allow Jaques to disappear off, followed by more dancing, then a return to the court, and finally by the epilogue. Much of the good redeeming work of the second half was undone in a dull and interminable finale that had more false endings than ‘The Lord Of The Rings’, and wasn’t even particularly good, despite Rosalind’s best attempts to engage the audience by kissing one old man.
THE GOOD: However, there were strengths. The Forest of Arden was in constant construction, which gave an interesting and unusual ongoing visual conceit, as props were built into the scenery. Throughout, Jaques and Corin acted as almost choric characters- the former addressing the audience directly at the start and cue-ing lighting changes and the opening and closing of curtains, while the latter moved the sun and moon about and appeared with huge brushes to clear the stage at the end.
Eve Best’s Rosalind was excellent, a fascinating mix of neuroses, repressed sexual stirrings, playfulness and earnestness. Harry Peacock was also very good as Touchstone, despite taking an accent and various phrasings from Griff Rhys Jones’ screen performance. His sheer enthusiasm and energy kept the audience entertained, and an additional showdown with the (here) slightly evil William was roundly applauded.
It’s very easy to watch plays thinking in terms of good and bad, and to be critical of points and moments. I believe it’s important, though, to be able to sit back and enjoy a production, as often plays are far more than the sum of their parts. The spirit of this ‘As You Like It’ ultimately won through, ploughing through the ropey sections and creating a piece that, though flawed, entertained. It’s certainly the best production of this play that I’ve ever seen, even if it reinforced my views that it’s a play that works far better on paper than in performance.