August 18, 2010, by Peter Kirwan
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.
Coming straight from a deep affection for the Globe’s 2009 AYLI, I was struck by the comparative darkness of this production. The bleak grey wall used for the court together with its formality of dress were quite disturbing. This meant that when the production tried later to jolly things along it never really escaped the gravity of its beginnings. There was something about the modern dress that made the atmosphere of violence and intimidation more believable, particularly when Duke Frederick burst in on Rosalind and Celia in their shared bedroom, something which really underlined the vulnerability of their situation.
I liked the way that 2.1 swapped places with 2.2 to enable one set of nobles to change costume and then transform immediately into the forest dwellers.
When I saw this on 23 July Dillane was applauded mid-scene when his Jaques launched into song doing an impression of Bob Dylan complete with harmonica. Unlike the other lords in the forest, Jaques wore dark trousers with his light-coloured jacket which seemed to symbolise the fact that part of him was still turned towards the ‘dark side’ to which he later returned when shunning the wedding festivities.
In addition to the borrowing of the waterboarding from the Curve Leicester, the myopic Sir Oliver seemed to be similarly borrowed from the 2009 Globe production. It was good to see 4.2 again staged as Celia’s dream, this time one in which Oliver appears as if prefiguring their future love.
I was also struck by the extra dialogue added to dramatise the seven degrees of the lie speech. In addition to being fun to watch, I wondered whether it had been added to provide more time for Juliet Rylance’s elaborate costume and other changes for her return as Rosalind?
Jaques also directed his ‘but for two months victualled’ remark at Silvius and Phoebe when I saw it, so that is a deliberate feature of the production.
Having also seen the Bridge Project Tempest, I noticed a neat piece of parallelism between the two productions. There is a turning point in The Tempest where Ariel tells Prospero that he would show mercy if he were human. This often looks as if it prompts Prospero to the forgiveness he later displays. Towards the end of AYLI there is a similar turning point when Orlando tells Rosalind that he can no longer be satisfied with playing mind games with Ganymede. This prompts Rosalind to bring about the resolution of the play in which she reappears as herself. As Christian Camargo plays both Ariel and Orlando, these two turning points were staged in roughly the same way: Christian sat downstage right facing the audience with Prospero/Rosalind respectively engaging with him close by. This parallel blocking using the same actor in the key role highlighted the connection between these two moments.
Thanks for that Duncan, couple of things I’d forgotten there. I think you’re spot on about the extra dialogue being added in order to give Rylance more time to change, it was a particularly elaborate switch. I agree about the dream too – it was nice to see it having a real point here, as opposed to in the RSC production.
I do like it when they find links of staging in productions – don’t think I’m going to get to the Tempest (did you like it? Friends who’ve seen it said it was one of the dreariest things they’d ever seen in the theatre), so thanks for the link.
Interesting that the Silvius/Phoebe comment was in it when you saw it too, presumably then it was deliberate. It must have been my imagination that saw Dillane look a bit hesitant after he started addressing it to the “wrong” people; however, I’ll keep it in as it’s certainly what struck me at the time!
The Tempest had great potential and some good ideas – but it was spoilt by the soporific delivery of Prospero’s lines and general slowness of pace. This made the Prospero/Miranda conversation in 1.2 almost painful to watch. Normally when a performance is run without an interval, it signals that the action has been speeded up and is fast paced, like CBJ’s Macbeth. But this was like observing something caught at the edge of a black hole where time appears to slow to a complete stop. The audience reacted to this lack of stimulation by instantly seizing on anything in the production that looked remotely amusing or interesting, as if desperate for the entertainment they had been expecting.
It wasn’t uniformly dreadful, but the bizarre decision to slow everything down detracted from what good stuff was there.