May 29, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

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.

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