May 5, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

As You Like It (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Playing in repertory with HamletMaria Aberg’s new production of As You Like It shared more than just a company that reunited the leading players from her spectacular King John last year. The same foundational level of muddy soil that was exposed throughout Hamlet to finish that play in an upturned graveyard emerged again here, but as the end result of the gradual unpacking of a formal, tautly controlled environment. The move to mud was, here, an embracing of nature, freedom and fun, in a production that used Shakespeare’s play as a launchpad for celebration.

In the formal court of Duke Frederick (an understudying Robin Soams, covering for John Stahl while continuing to fulfil double duty as Corin/Hymen), courtiers wore evening dress and moved in tightly choreographed patterns, shifting from conformity into an evocation of sexual suppression as the men began smoking cigarettes and watching the women moving, clapping and clicking in time with one another. This seedy, dark environment was presided over by Soams in shirt sleeves. The wrestling pit, revealed as a lower area full of soil under the flooring, was a bare-knuckle arena where Charles and Orlando had a brutal, no-holds-barred bout that left both bloodied and exhausted. Watching this, the courtiers clicked in time, moving breathlessly closer as one to the pit, the bout a moment of cathartic release that anticipated the carnival spirit of later.

It is far from original to base a production around the distinction between court and country, but Aberg and designer Naomi Dawson’s world went further than most to emphasise Arden as a holiday rather than a separate world, seeing the two environments bleeding into one another rather than being fundamentally distinct. The revolving stage and sliding wooden slats ensured there was no big reveal when the location shifted, rather a slippage into a deconstructed version of the court. Travellers wore wellies and anoraks, Luke Norris’s Oliver even bringing with him an orienteering map. Arden itself was backed by an enormous stone wall and filled with faded furniture, rusty fridges (from which the cast constantly took cans) and musical instruments. This was Arden as Glastonbury, not in the showy sense of Propeller’s The Winter’s Tale, but as the messy, muddy, free-spirited and improvised desire to get out of town, take some drugs and dance to folk music.

Atmosphere was all, from Chris Jared’s gentle performance on acoustic guitar of the early songs, to the onstage band who accompanied Joanna Horton’s excellent Celia as she improvised a song to Rosalind’s love letter, to the rousing group song that Touchstone demanded of the singers as the entire company set up flags, maypoles and fairy lights for the wedding sequence. On a busy stage, the number of assignations and small relationships was extraordinary, right down to William’s unhappiness at Audrey marrying Touchstone at the conclusion and the dancing between anonymous extras. The lazy summer festival emerged out of a wintry court in the first half, and as such felt earned, a luxurious and indulgent student party of a production.

Yet the concern for atmosphere had its issues too. At almost three and a half hours the party couldn’t help but flag, and this was despite extensive cutting, particularly including the entire set-up of the final scene (Rosalind organising events, not to mention Touchstone’s degrees speech) that left the revelation feeling sudden and rushed. Nicolas Tennant’s red-nosed Touchstone had extensive adlib sequences that included bantering with an audience member about her marriage proposal (she couldn’t remember it) and being bored while sitting ‘shepherding’ with Corin, but these sequences were far too long for the few laughs they afforded. Perhaps more frustratingly, the plethora of musical numbers disrupted the plot, leaving the second half in particular feeling aimless. If there’s one thing As You Like It doesn’t need as a play, it’s performance decisions that leave it even more slow and distracted.

This was a shame, as at the heart of this production were some extraordinary performances, notably Pippa Nixon’s era-defining Rosalind. Nixon has specialised in boy roles throughout the time I’ve been aware of her, from the ‘laddish’ Trish in Days of Significance through Jessica, Violante and the Bastard, and the experience showed in her ability to shift between Rosalind and Ganymede without unnecessary costuming. The confidence of the production to put its Ganymede in jeans and a vest-top rather than layers of disguise allowed her scenes with Alex Waldmann’s flirtatious Orlando an actual rather than feigned intimacy, resulting in a sexual chemistry that made absolute sense, the two kissing passionately and even beginning clawing at one another’s clothes after their marriage until Rosalind halted it, to the embarrassment of Orlando who had to conceal himself immediately.

Nixon’s bolshy performance was supported by Horton as a knowing and similarly flirty Celia, who ensured she was constantly in Oliver’s eye once they had met, and who married Rosalind and Orlando without a second thought. What characterised these scenes was a rare lack of restraint – every character seemed as keen to embrace the freedom of the forest. The gradual subsumption of the more formally dressed court characters into the festival spirit saw them slowly unwind and take on the characteristics of those they encountered, from Duke Senior’s (Cliff Burnett) commune of hippies to, rather more oddly, a costumed group performing a Native American rain dance for the climax, in which Adam (David Fielder) participated.  It’s perhaps a shame however that, given the RSC’s involvement in fraught debates over casting policies involving minority groups last season, the only speaking role for a BME actor was a stereotyped, ganja-smoking, Jamaican Sir Oliver Martext (Dave Fishley).

Obvious interpretive decisions were avoided – there was no obvious or accidental reveal of Rosalind’s ‘true’ gender to Oliver and Orlando, no chaotic disruption by Jaques, no problematisation of the banished court’s practices in the forest and no attempt to redeem Frederick. The thematic strands involved the physicality of sex and violence, with Waldmann’s Orlando in particular moving from the severe bruising he suffered from Charles to the deep slashes of the lion, his bodily experience feeding into his charged relationship with Ganymede. The humour depended rather on visual gags (the enormous backpack carted around by Aliena) and witty delivery of lines (Touchstone’s put down of William and Rosalind’s final shriek to end the back and forth between Phoebe, Silvius and Orlando).

The oddest performance was that of Oliver Ryan as Jaques, whose sneeringly nasal voice gave an acerbic, strained edge to his words, but whose joyfully manic physical performance lent the character an unusual enthusiasm. Ryan’s delivery of ‘All the world’s a stage’ was performed as a set piece, he performing versions of all of the ages before ending on a quiet note as he considered what it would mean to be ‘sans everything’. In a lovely grace note, his performance of marching off was interrupted by Rosalind giving him her bouquet of wildflowers, which he grumpily but sincerely accepted before leaving. His performance was complemented by Michael Grady-Hall’s deeply moving Silvius, who delivered Phoebe’s letter smugly to Orlando and was reduced to bitter tears when he discovered what was actually contained therein. While the resolution of the lovers’ stories was rather abbreviated in the mad rush to the end, his words stood out, particularly when applied to Natalie Klamar’s childlike performance as Phoebe.

This production was interested far less in verse than in dance, choreographed by Ayse Tashkiran. A torchlit dance between five of the female actors was an evocative centrepiece, breaking up the two main scenes of Rosalind and Orlando’s wooing, and the climax, presided over by Soams’s Corin disguised as Hymen with huge horns, broke down into passionate embraces and a wild dance of abandon between the four couples, running in fast circles around one another and whirling each other around. As they danced the heavens opened, turning the soil into mud and sending the cast scuttling in laughter for shelter, apart from Rosalind and Orlando who remained onstage to be drenched, oblivious and laughing, until Rosalind turned to give a frank and breathless epilogue.

In the final reckoning, As You Like It was remarkably similar to the music festivals it evoked. Starting with a clear narrative, it descended into baggy celebration, muddy dancing, sexual abandon and, ultimately, incoherence. Yet while it was overlong and probably much more fun for those dancing, one wouldn’t have wanted to be anyone else.

Posted in Theatre review