March 5, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

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.

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