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August 18, 2010

As You Like It (Bridge Project) @ The Old Vic

The Bridge Project, the transatlantic theatre tour directed by Sam Mendes, is now in its second year, and this year's pairing brought As You Like It and The Tempest to the Old Vic. Unlike last year's Winter's Tale, where accents were used to distinguish between the characters of Sicily and Bohemia, here the English and American cast members were fully integrated; a gesture characteristic of a production full of bonhomie and convivial humour.

Driven by Juliet Rylance's hearty performance as Rosalind, Mendes's As You Like It sold itself not on originality (the blasted wintry forest of the first act reminiscent of last year's RSC production; while a second half opening scene featuring Edward Bennett's Oliver having his head plunged into water by Frederick's goons was plagiarised directly from Tim Supple's 2009 Leicester production), but on the gusto of its performances. Rylance's boisterousness initially ran the risk of being little more than shouting and strutting, but her triumphant Ganymede - whether acting out the entire spectrum of a woman's emotions or turning shrieks into manly coughs - was irresistably ingratiating, capturing the energy necessary to draw everyone along in Rosalind's schemes. This was aided by Michelle Beck's unusually prominent Celia, the only character with the strength of mind to match Rosalind. The two worked as a pair; even when Celia was silent, she actively walked the stage with Rosalind and provided a foil for Orlando's confusion. Bitterly resentful at court and comically threatening on her exhausted arrival in the forest, Celia underwent a subtle but noticable transformation in the forest, and blossomed under the attentions of Oliver.

Tom Piper's simple set saw bare boards give way to a snowy forest in the first half, and a thick undergrowth replace the snow in the second. Paul Pryant's lighting was the star of the design though: shafts of fading sun gave the Duke's al fresco banquet a bitter crispness, while a deep yellow, sharply-angled haze gave the later forest scenes the impression of early morning. Mendes evoked a nostalgic rural past tinged by sadness: amid the relaxed and lazy lifestyle of the forest, grace notes hinted at the transience suggested by the lighting: Adam quietly passed away at the banquet as the act closed, Touchstone raised Audrey's veil in front of Oliver Martext and was suddenly struck by genuine sober affection, and the gentle philosophy of Corin - a beautifully subtle performance by Anthony O'Donnell - was appealing in its simplicity, until he laughed raucously at the spellbound and thoroughly taken in Touchstone. Stephen Dillane's understated Jaques epitomised this side to the play, often delivering lines while lying down and meandering through the play with a lazy air. Dillane's Jaques was something of a revelation: his quietness acted to dominate his scenes, hushing the action and creating the exact ambience that Jaques purported to undermine.

Happily, however, the more wistful aspects of the production didn't negate the more obvious comedy. Rylance's enthusiasm quickened the pace whenever it was in danger of becoming too slow, and Thomas Sadoski's deeply railing Touchstone injected a harsh note into the humour - only silenced when a beaten William violently headbutted him by way of parting. Silvius (Aaron Krohn) and Phoebe (Ashley Atkinson) were another comic highlight, although again less was definitely more. Silvius's anguished realisation of the contents of Phoebe's letter drew spontaneous outpourings of sympathy from an engrossed audience, and Phoebe similarly lost control while ruminating on Ganymede's virtues, absent-mindedly stroking Silvius's leg as she did so, to his delight.

The production, however, was at its funniest when it lost its way. Touchstone's "7th degree" speech took the form of an instructed dialogue between Jaques and Duke Senior, fed lines by Touchstone. Unsatisfied with their "performance", Touchstone then proceeded to act out the duologue by himself; however, in the middle of it, his clown's nose fell off. Sadoski quickly grabbed it and replaced it, only for it to fly off again and roll down the stage. Pursuing it with his umbrella while the rest of the cast quietly corpsed, he eventually kicked it into the audience. The good spirits of the cast were infectious on a deeply appreciative audience, who clapped and cheered until the cast eventually recovered his composure long enough to complete the scene. Later, Dillane wished Touchstone and Audrey to their well-deserved bed, while pronouncing a less optimistic warning for Silvius and Phoebe. While a moment's hesitation suggested that this was a mistake, the cast jollily improvised around it, Phoebe reassuring a comically-stricken Silvius.

It was a shame, then, that such an interesting and nuanced production was nearly derailed by an appalling score. The interspersed songs were beautiful, especially a whole band rendition of "It was a lover and his lass" sung by Corin and Audrey, but the cloyingly saccharine keyboard music - that not only filled scene changes but was played every time a character walked on stage - smothered the comedy in an aggressive melancholia that was clearly designed to emphasise the wistful elements of Mendes's forest, but instead served to devalue the work of the cast by instructing the audience exactly how to feel.

June 10, 2009

As You Like It @ Shakespeare's Globe

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Only a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that As You Like It is one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. In no small part, this is due simply to the fact that I’ve seen the play several times, but been distinctly underwhelmed on every occasion. I’m extremely pleased, therefore, to be able to say that I’ve finally seen the proverbial good As You Like It, at Shakespeare’s Globe in Thea Sharrock’s wonderful production.

Greater than the sum of its parts, Sharrock’s simply staged version of the play was by turns hysterically funny and surprisingly moving. Michael Benz’s superlative Silvius was a perfect example of this, amusingly desperate but always sympathetic, his love honest and believable. His answer to the question of what love is, accompanied by some gentle steel drumming, brought a tear to my eye. Benz’s skill appears to be in investing comic characters with humanity, and his Silvius thus became the heart of the scenes in which he appeared.

The play was often re-arranged for dramatic effect, resulting in a fast and coherent text that (dare I say it) felt far better structured than the original, serving in the second half to structure the subplots more effectively around Rosalind and thus strengthen her centrality. The simple removal of 4.2 turned 4.1 and 4.3 into a single continuous scene that allowed Rosalind to deal deftly with Orlando, Silvius and Oliver in turn. Naomi Frederick’s Rosalind was simultaneously shy and confident as Ganymede, expertly following through her plans but yet subject to impulses and doubts. Her disguise was repeatedly betrayed by her high voice, which she reminded herself to lower, and her irrepressible excitement at being around Orlando also threatened to ruin her plans at every turn.

The fact that this Rosalind didn’t always maintain control made her relationship with Jack Laskey’s Orlando uniquely fascinating. After being “married” by Celia, Rosalind surrendered to the moment, leaned in and gave Orlando a lingering kiss. Turning away from him, she giggled to the audience, but failed to see Orlando’s shocked face of recognition – it was at this point that he realised who ‘Ganymede’ really was. With Orlando in on the joke, the remainder of their scenes became a mutual game that placed the two lovers on an equal footing, both enjoying their disguised courtship and teasing the other. This allowed Laskey’s Orlando to become a far more likeable and engaging hero than in any other production I’ve seen, allowing his intelligence and wit to shine through. With Oliver also in on the secret (on picking Rosalind up after her faint, he found himself grabbing her chest), the two brothers played their own jokes: Orlando’s injury by the lion, for example, was a fabrication, and the sling immediately removed when the two brothers were alone together.

As the central relationship was so engaging, there was less pressure to play up the significance of supporting roles, thus freeing other actors to simply enjoy their parts and entertain. This was particularly true of Dominic Rowan’s Touchstone and Tim McMullan’s Jaques, both excellent. Rowan began the play in motley, but for the entire of his time in Arden was actually the smartest character on stage, playing up the character’s intelligent and courtly fooling, and allowing for a repeated joke about him stepping in something unseemly. Rowan played up to the crowd throughout, often rolling his eyes in a plea for sympathy at his having to deal with forest folk. In 3.3, his line “and as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling” was spoken in direct reference to a pigeon that had just decided to take off from the stage, bringing sustained applause and Touchstone shouting “It’s in the script!” In terms of the character’s wider importance, however, this Touchstone served as the audience’s most important and constant connection with the play, Rowan deliberately setting the character slightly outside the stage action in order to provided good-humoured criticism of it. By acknowledging the audience as he insulted Audrey, Corin and others, he cast those scenes as entertainments, shared performative jokes.

McMullan’s Jaques, by contrast, was as a character entirely within the world of the play, but yet spent much of his time in the yard with the groundlings. Other reviews have referred to him as “lugubrious”, and there is no better word for McMullan’s performance. Luxurious, lazy and comically detached, Jaques breezed easily around the entire auditorium (even the top galleries as he watched Audrey and Touchstone prepare for their wedding) and commented with good-natured amusement on everything he saw. It’s the kind of performance which can be insufferable, yet McMullan’s ever-present smile betrayed the character’s detachment even from his own opinions. Where other recent Jaques’ have been almost misanthropic, McMullan’s version of the character loved life and loved people, but was simply more interested in the larger questions, his search for “matter”. Everything amused him, whether Touchstone’s antics or his own joke at the audience’s expense that they were the fools who his invocation of “Ducdame” had called into a circle.

Both Touchstone and Jaques were thus free to become uncomplicated entertainers, rather than having to provide “matter”, making the play as a whole an extremely enjoyable experience as one eminently watchable character followed another. However, this shouldn’t imply that the production steered clear of darkness or complication. The opening saw the stage draped heavily in black and the court, in black Jacobean dress, process formally onto the stage. Brendan Hughes’ young Duke Frederick and Jamie Parker’s Oliver provided suitably villainous dominant figures in the play’s early scenes, against which the livelier spirits of Orlando, Rosalind and Celia were strained and compromised. Le Beau, too, became a relatively severe tool of the Duke. In his first appearance, he interrupted a playful scene in which Rosalind and Celia were throwing Touchstone’s coxcomb between them. Le Beau grabbed the coxcomb from mid air and dropped it to the floor, much to Touchstone’s chagrin. In this court, fun was strictly prohibited, and the flight to Arden (for which the black cloths were stripped away to reveal the bare wooden pillars of the Globe) was a liberation.

A bit of early re-cutting provided a more tense build-up to the wrestling scene, by placing Le Beau’s report of the fight before Charles’ meeting with Oliver, meaning that Oliver’s permission for Charles to harm his brother came immediately before the battle itself. For the fight, a ring was created in the pit, allowing the fight to range across the stage and down among the groundlings. Sean Kearns made for a physically imposing Charles, and a genial, earthy Corin, a solid presence throughout.

The production’s small touches were too innumerable to recount here. A goat taunted Touchstone from beneath a trapdoor, poking its head out to bleat at him; Phoebe’s “And if mine eyes can wound, now let them kill thee” was accompanied with an ‘evil eye’ stare in an attempt to put her words into practice; Touchstone’s coxcomb changed costume as he did; printed poems fell from the ceilings and galleries over the audience. The invention was in the small detail rather than sweeping concepts, and the production relied on its relationships between characters and audience rather than on set-pieces. In this, as I began, it was greater than the sum of its parts, the ensemble working to draw the audience into its world and share a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The only awkward note was in the play’s final resolution, which unusually (and bravely) brought on Hymen as a god, a newly-introduced actor rather than Corin or Adam in disguise, coming up through the audience to bless the couples. It brought the play to a somewhat abrupt close, interrupting Rosalind’s conclusion of her plots, presumably explaining why the character is so often cut or reduced in importance. However, Ewart James Walters brought a striking presence to these closing moments and the appearance of Hymen did provide an authoritative finality to the “confusions”. With a jig and a final interruption for Rosalind to deliver an effective and genuinely amusing Epilogue, the best As You Like It I’ve seen yet closed, a triumph for all concerned.

May 29, 2009

As You Like It (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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Long time readers will know that As You Like It is one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. In fact, as much as this goes against the grain of my general Shakesepearean outlook, it's one that I personally find works better on the page than the stage. Once in the Forest of Arden, it takes an excellent production to maintain pace and dramatic interest, to keep an audience caring about the games and romantic manipulations around which the plot is built.

Michael Boyd's new production for the RSC, his first since the Histories cycle, was competent and quick, accelerating through the final scenes in particular and maintaining the momentum of the central romance. Speed, however, does not in itself provide interest and this, while not a bad As You Like It, was certainly not a great one.

A bare stage and panelled wooden backdrop created an austere court setting, with courtiers mostly in black Jacobean formalwear. As events moved to Arden, panels within the backdrop were gradually opened, revealing a mesh of branches and trunks behind, bare and wintry. Quite why the production went for a gradual reveal I wasn't sure, but the effect was to blur the edges of court and country, the one slowly disappearing into the other, perhaps in emulation of the courtly characters' own settlement into the forest life. By the second act, the entire theatre (including foyer and trees outside) was decorated with scribbed poems on cardboard and paper, hanging from the flies and pasted onto pillars. A poetry competition has been running alongside the production, and presumably some of these were copies of the winning entries.

The coldness of this forest was stressed early on as Duke Ferdinand and his followers emerged from trapdoors, shivering and holding rifles in what appeared to be a particularly bitter winter. This was no paradise, as the presence of a blind, wounded soldier among his men testified. Threatened and scared, the soldiers attempted to make the best of their banishment but were clearly still on edge; Orlando was held secretly at gunpoint for a long time after his invasion of their camp. In this atmosphere of mistrust, Jaques was surprisingly one of the jollier of the crew. His first appearance dispensed with Amiens, and instead had Forbes Masson's philosopher strumming a guitar and singing the song himself to the audience, teasing us with a "More?" and the warning "It will make you melancholy..." With deep eye shadow and purple outfit, this Jaques was an aesthete, a glam artist with the otherly world perspective that an immersion in one's own creativity occasions. While Jaques deliberately positioned himself as an outsider, however, the prominence given to the character early on was not sustained as the production went on, and while his comic conversations with Touchstone and Orlando were retained, the darker aspects such as his criticism of the deer-killing (4.2) were cut. His departure in the final scene injected a note of disharmony into the festivities, but was instantly forgotten.

In place of 4.2 was introduced a bizarre dream sequence, that saw Celia fall asleep and dream of her father and his courtiers entering with antlers and conducting a formal dance. The purpose was presumably to tie in the killing of the deer to the decline of the usurping Duke, but in practice it served as a bizarre and confusing interlude that, again, was forgotten as soon as it ended. The production's attempts to inject moments of darkness were consistently undone, their effects superficial rather than integral.

What worked better were the moments of faintly ridiculous comedy. James Traherne excelled as an hysterical Sir Oliver Martext, a terrifying preacher with fixed joyous grin and a flaming sword in the shape of a cross. Surreal, creepy and very funny, he left an impression entirely disproportionate to his stage time, to the production's benefit. Sophie Russell's Audrey drew the biggest laughs of the final scene, the plain and mucky girl dolled up in mini-skirt, feathery jacket and stilettos that she barely managed to stand upright in, and Dyfan Dwyfor (trivia note: another survivor from the Young Person's productions during the Complete Works Festival), a Welshman in bobble hat and boiler suit, made for a simple and touching William.

For sustained comic form, however, the production owed much to Richard Katz as Touchstone. His tufts of wild hair recalled Doc. Scott from the Back to the Future films, and his costume was a form of straitjacket, out of which he broke in his first appearance. This Touchstone delighted in games and accents, whether making a full set piece of the "degrees of the lie" or adapting a posh accent in mocking Geoffrey Freshwater's Corin. Yet there was a sadness to him which made this clown more interesting than a simple producer of belly laughs. The second half began with him retching as he watched Corin skin and clean a rabbit, disgusted at the Shepherd's actions. Out of his element, Katz's clown was attempting to find his niche within the forest world, and failed to ever reconcile himself with the country life; as soon as he returned to the presence of the banished Duke, he reverted to a grovelling disposition. His introduction to the forest, wrapped in an enormous cocoon of hay, perfectly encapsulated the comic despair with which he addressed himself to this new life.

Katy Stephens brought maturity and confidence to the role of Rosalind, appearing to be at all times in complete control of her schemes as Ganymede. She and Mariah Gale's Celia were often touchingly girlish in their earlier scenes, blocking each other as they spoke to Orlando and, in Rosalind's case, giggling as she left the mute champion alone onstage. In disguise, Ganymede's pencil-thin beard and moustached and full curly hair placed 'him' somewhere between a Restoration rake and an effete Wildean hero. Jonjo O'Neill's Orlando, by contrast, was a malleable subject for her plot, happy to let Ganymede take control and accept his good fortune. It's a textual strangeness that O'Neill's performance forced me to properly notice for the first time: that Orlando is an active and heroic figure for the play's first half, as far as bringing Adam to Duke Ferdinand's table, but in the second half we becomes (apart from the reported defence of his brother) rather passive and uninteresting. Stephens' Rosalind took full command, but the certainty of the outcome rather deflated any engagement with their interactions. It didn't help, from this point of view, that the cuts came in the scenes which break up Rosalind's plot. The re-casting of the stag scene as a dream sequence enforced direct continuity between 4.1 and 4.3, with Celia merely waking up after a nap before the plot continued, and 5.3 was also cut, meaning the play moved directly from Rosalind's orders to their fulfillment. Rosalind's cleverness was in no doubt, but without risk - or even time in which a risk could present itself - the dramatic impact was missed.

James Tucker made for a very good Silvius, the shepherd's romantic musings delivered with a heartfelt longing and slightly pathetic desperation. I found the resolution of his and Phoebe's story slightly problematic, in that a great opportunity for a touch of darkness was set up and instantly aborted. Christine Entwistle's Phoebe, in what should be an obvious reading but not one I've ever come across, was absolutely furious with Rosalind's trickery of her, screaming at the newly-unveiled heroine as she realised that she had been duped into marrying someone she hated. Silvius twice made to touch her, at which she pulled away. Eventually, as she made to storm off stage, the shepherd stepped up and forced a kiss upon her, long and passionate, during which she eventually melted into his arms. The ending could have used a little more bite, and here was the perfect opportunity to complicate one of the happy endings, yet instead ending in that horrible 40s Hollywood cliche of the forced kiss subduing the lady's independence.

The play's final moments perhaps best sum up my disappointment with the production. The large supporting cast all came together on stage, Hymen included, and with Jaques gone Duke Ferdinand ordered the celebrations to begin. The ensuing music and folk dancing lasted for barely a moment before the cast suddenly fled to the edges of the auditorium, leaving Rosalind to sing her epilogue. This killing of spontaneity to make way for the practiced formality of the final speech was symptomatic of a production which felt, overall, to be too rehearsed, too choreographed, too predictable. A little more risk, complexity and looseness would have gone a long way. Despite this, however, the performance were generally solid and the production eminently capable. I'd just like to see the RSC being more than that.

On a final note, the community and activity around the current productions at the RSC is extremely commendable. As well as the poetry contest (including a Twitter category!), they're holding family days, hosting director interviews on the website and generally engaging more than I've ever known the RSC to do with new audiences and the community among which it exists.

March 05, 2009

As You Like It (Leicester Theatre Trust/Dash Arts) @ Curve, Leicester

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Curve, located in the centre of Leicester, is an enormous and hugely expensive new theatre venue that opened late last year. Already it's been doing some exciting work, not least a revival of The Pillowman, and it's landed a coup as the producing house for Tim Supple's new production of As You Like It, the eagerly-awaited follow-up to his universally lauded Dream. The Curve itself impressed: an enormous foyer curves around the central performance studios in a manner reminiscent of Manchester's Royal Exchange on a much bigger scale. I'm still looking forward to seeing the full capabilities of the space: if I'm right, the two performance spaces back onto one another and can combine to create a bigger auditorium.

For this production, an unusually steeply-raked stage had been constructed, effectively causing the performers to act on the side of a hill. As well as evoking the unpredictable contours of the country, this allowed for spectacular blocking; the sight of the whole company appearing over the rise of the hill to look down on the audience was almost panoramic in its scope. Anna Fleischle's set was stunning, too. The enormous stage was made up of slatted floorboards, with a maze of wires stretching to the ceiling creating barriers for newcomers to negotiate as they made their way to the front of the stage. The impenetrable darkness of the upstage area created a deep and unsettling feel, echoing the danger of the court. However, as we moved to the Forest of Arden, these wires rose towards the ceiling, pulling sections of flooring with them. This was the single most beautiful set change I've ever witnessed - dazzling lights shone forward from back stage, catching the angle of the woodenboards as they jaggedly rose and became the forest's angular trees, all the while accompanied by music. For the second act, the remainder of the floorboards were removed completely, leaving a hill of soil and cuttings.

The production's main concern was with multiculturalism, with cast and crew hailing from "Gambia, Kenya, Greece, Poland, New Orleans, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Russia, Israel, Yemen, Armenia, Rwanda, West Indies, Germany, Cornwall and Leicester". By appropriating Shakespeare's pastoral settings for the modern multi-cultural Britain, Supple's production emphasised the dislocation inherent in the play; almost everyone in the forest was, in a sense, an immigrant. Adam's speech "From seventeen years till now almost fourscore/ Here lived I, but now live here no more", was used to put this into words, the old African servant lamenting the loss of his home while acknowledging that he had no other option but to relocate. This concern breathed fresh interest into the play and provided a (perhaps overly?) optimistic message of racial harmony as myriad cultures learned to share the peaceful space of the forest.

The world of the court was brutal, and Ery Nzaramba's Oliver suffered the worst of it; first he was strangled to near-unconsciousness by Orlando, and then later had his head held in a full bucket of water by Duke Frederick's men. This last was particularly uncomfortable, Nzaramba staying under the water long past the point one would have considered safe, and hugely effective in demonstrating Frederick's tyranny. Rosalind and Celia, dressed in saris, whispered to each other on a Persian rug, their self-created private space within the court where they could speak safely, yet Hisperia could be seen in the upstage shadows, listening to their plans. Frederick's reign was hands-on, he personally holding the two wrestlers apart prior to their bout, and he maintained his rule physically. Rosalind's angry defiance, stepping up to him and shouting in his face as he tried to banish her, was answered with his violent advance on her, from which she hastily recoiled in genuine fear for her safety.

Tracy Ifeachor's Rosalind was strong, an independent woman who clearly resented having to wear long clothes and hide her face. Her transformation into Ganymede, unravelling the cloths that bound her, was an act of liberation which she fully embraced. While in female costume, her desire for Orlando was limited to longing gazes; as Ganymede, she thrust herself up against him, kissed him passionately, rolled with him on the floor and panted ecstatically, all in the space of one speech as she demonstrated how she could 'act' as his Rosalind. Her increasing lack of inhibitions made Natalie Dew's demure Celia particularly uncomfortable, she sitting sullenly as the two lovers flirted. Celia's Indian heritage weighed more heavily on her, her discomfort with immodesty preventing her from following Rosalind's lead. Her altogether more gentle - and brief - courtship with Oliver fitted her perfectly, the two doing little more than sharing gazes and taking hands.

The two girls were accompanied by Kevork Malikyan's entertaining Touchstone. Malikyan's performance was relatively straightforward, dressed in motley and speaking with a faux-serious wit. Evoking European clowning traditions, his words - often ostensibly cruel - were softened by a delivery that showed it was the words he was in love with, not their effects. His comedy was thus not laugh-out-loud funny, but instead provided a heart that offset any seriousness elsewhere in the production. More complex was Justin Avoth's Jaques. An Englishman with bushy beard, Avoth's first appearances drew on the traditional, sarcastic Jaques while imbuing him with knowing humour. As the production progressed, however, the character grew darker. His desire to 'know' Ganymede was unusually sincere, and Orlando's appearance threw him into a rage in which he stormed off, glaring at the couple. His next appearance was more shocking. As Amiens and the Lord washed the blood of the stag off their hands, he entered in disarray with a bucket of blood and the stag's antlers. Jaques, snarling in anger at the two men, smeared blood over the Lord's face and then over his own as he demanded a lament for the deer. As the rest of the company watched and sang along at the brow of the hill, Jaques held the antlers over his bloodied face and pounded the stage, the red light and noise all part of his conjuration of the stag's spirit. This scene sat uncomfortably within the rest of the production, and I confess that I didn't entirely understand Jaques' arc other than to demonstrate a growing wildness and dissatisfaction in the character in contrast to the growing harmony elsewhere. His final departure from Duke Ferdinand had the unsettling impact of Malvolio's "I'll be revenged" as he left the group to seek Duke Frederick in his misery.

Perhaps the production's clinching factor was the music, composed by Nitin Sawhney and Ashwin Srinivasan. Coupling folk (some tunes were highly reminiscent of Kneehigh's style) with musical traditions lifted from the performers' own cultures, all of the play's ditties were transformed into something moving and beautiful. A live musician, Tiken Singh, provided most of the ambience, but the music also elevated the roles of Amiens and the other (unnamed) Lord (played by Abram Wilson and T J Holmes), who played a variety of instruments and provided most of the vocals. Wilson is also a musician by trade, and the melodies created by the three underscored the action to beautiful effect, particularly during the delicate "Blow, blow thou winter wind" as Adam lay near-dead at Duke Ferdinand's fireside.

Each act ended beautifully, emphasising Supple's eye for visual images that resound with an audience long after they've left the theatre. The first half closed with the banished Duke's camp lit only by firelight and Jaques reciting his speech on the seven ages of man. As he reached the seventh age, Adam was brought in, and Jaques aimed his closing comments at the dying man in Orlando's arms, in an uncomfortable reminder of mortality. By contrast, the second half closed with the four weddings, all drawn from a different cultural tradition (downing a glass of alcohol; tying hands together; jumping over a stick; exchanging garlands etc.) . This harmonious display provided a fittingly comfortable end that showed the displaced immigrants settled safely. A beautiful As You Like It (the first really good one I've seen!), and one that successfully addressed contemporary concerns while preserving the pastoral feel.

March 25, 2007

Before the Bardathon

As we enter the final week of my year-long project, I’m going to be posting a few retrospective entries in addition to the final couple of reviews. First up, I thought for interest I’d mention my PREVIOUS Shakespeare theatre-going.

I haven’t been attending the theatre as long as many people think. Being a Northerner born-and-bred, and not having a lot of money at that, my theatregoing ability was severely restricted until I started university five and a half years ago. Even since then, it’s only been a couple of years since I really discovered Stratford and started going regularly, and my experience of Shakespearean performance in London is also somewhat limited. What I HAVE done, however, is read and study performance history extensively, which has helped me catch up in no small part on the productions I’ve missed. In addition, I’ve watched pretty much every screen production I can get my hands on.

So, before the Complete Works, what have I seen? A good few productions still, though my memory of them fails in several places. For interest, then, here’s what I have seen:

AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC 2005, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Aside from a big tree, a very VERY dull production of ‘As You Like It’ by Dominic Cooke. Some nice moments, but from the Circle the production died a slow and painful death in the second act, which was far longer than the first, and simple wasn’t funny apart from Paul Chahidi’s Touchstone.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (RSC 2005, dir. Nancy Meckler, at the RST)

Hysterical and highly acclaimed, as well as introducing me to the talents of Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger as the Dromios. Fast, funny and exactly how an ‘Errors’ should be.

HAMLET (RSC 2004, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I don’t remember much of this, apart from a few single moments. I do remember, however, Toby Stephens’ Hamlet being pretty damned good!

HENRY V (WUDS 2002 at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

A student production- very low budget, but lively and, particularly in the memorable scenes involving the four soldiers of different nationalities, quite funny too. An all-female cast was the main innovation.

KING JOHN (RSC 2001, dir. Gregory Doran, at the Swan)

Memorable mostly for a spectacular fall from the upper balcony for Arthur, and for the spectacular use of flags and symbols. Generally a very good production, though I enjoyed the 2006 production better.

JULIUS CAESAR (WUDS 2002/3? at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Notable for being the last (I believe) non-musical student production to be staged in the main theatre at Warwick Arts Centre. Solid performances all round, a good use of stage space and innovative use of hand-held cameras for the war scenes made this a very interesting production.

MACBETH (Theatre Babel 2002?, at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Not the greatest ‘Macbeth’, but a fantastic set of dangling swords that descended to ground level and were a constant reminder of the ever-present threat.

MACBETH (RSC 2004, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Bizarrely, all I can remember of this production is the England scene, particularly Clive Wood’s Macduff. I seem to remember enjoying it, however.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC 2005, dir. Gregory Doran, at the RST)

Truly magical, and only bettered by Tim Supple’s Indian ‘Dream’. Spectacular use of scenery, puppets and physical movement made this a true joy to watch, along with Malcolm Storry’s excellent Bottom and yet another hysterical performance by Paul Chahidi as Quince. The ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ will remain with me forever.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC, 2006, at Warwick Arts Centre)

I can’t find anything anywhere about this event, which was performed for one night only at Warwick Arts Centre as part of a tour. Part concert, part performance, it saw a major orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, while RSC actors performed the play between the beautiful score. While necessarily heavily limited by a tiny stage space and the concert format, this was a very fun version of the play, with excellent conflict between the lovers in particular and a superb orchestra playing the most famous Shakespearean music there is. Unfortunately, the evening was coloured by the fact my back collapsed and I had to be taken home by an ambulance afterwards…...

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (WUDS 2004?, dir. Ben Fowler, at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

An interesting ‘Much Ado’, with spectacularly staged overhearing scenes and some interesting things to say about the play. Variable performances, but overall an interesting production.

OTHELLO (Cheek By Jowl 2004, dir. Declan Donnellan, at Riverside Studios London)

One of those divisive productions which people either loved or hated. Seeing it in traverse in London helped, I believe, but still I disliked the slow-talking Iago who seemed to have little control over his actions. However, the cast in general were excellent and the brutal murder of Desdemona, picking her up by the neck, was truly shocking.

SIR THOMAS MORE (RSC 2005, dir. Robert Delamere, at the Swan)

A highly enjoyable production that first introduced me to Nigel Cooke, who was similarly excellent in ‘Pericles’ and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ this season. Violent and exciting, a production which made a very strong case for the increased study in the theatre of this play.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (RSC Touring Company 2000, dir. Lindsay Posner, at Epic Leisure Centre, Ellesmere Port)

A fascinating induction, setting the play in modern day with Sly surfing for porn on the internet and eventually stumbling across an online video of the play. After that, a very funny production that still stays in the mind despite the relatively long time since and my unfamiliarity with it. Still the only RSC touring production I’ve seen.

THE TEMPEST (Shakespeare’s Globe 2000, dir. Lenka Udovicki, at the Globe)

My only experience of the Globe, and an interesting production- with a memorably ethereal Ariel who left the auditorium through the audience, a violent Caliban who kept the crowd laughing with his constant swearing at the overhead planes, and Vanessa Redgrave as an interesting Prospero.

TWELFTH NIGHT (RSC 2005, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I remember much favourable about this production, mostly the comedians- Forbes Masson, Andrew Mackay and Clive Wood winding up Richard Cordery’s Malvolio to perfection, before going on to greater things in the History plays this year. However, I hated this at the time- overall it was sloppy and dull, with awful performances from Viola, Olivia and Sebastian in particular. Lots of interest, lots of style, but very few laughs and an ultimately dull reading.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (RSC 1998, dir. Edward Hall, at the Swan)

And finally, the first Shakespeare I ever saw. This picture is the only bit I really remember- a very funny Crab and Launce, who stay in my mind over nine years later. The Swan has remained one of my favourite theatres over the years too, and it’s nice to think back this far, to the start of my RSC viewing, and still be able to recall little things about a play.

March 09, 2007

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.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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  • I think you may be over analysing. Wasn't it just meant to be a bit of a history lesson? I remember … by Sue on this entry
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