Certain theatres carry with them certain expectations. The National Theatre, to me, will always have the childhood thrill which is the due of the scene of some my earliest theatre-going days (The Wind in the Willows, and the excitement of a revolving stage) and due to ever-fresh joy of walking over the Hungerford Bridge to the Southbank. And obviously the National Theatre carries a weight with it in terms of prestige of performance – you should be able to go there in confidence that the show you see will be pretty damn good. As You Like It was pretty damn good. More than that – it was fresh and it was very very funny.
As You Like It is a play I’ve never quite understood on paper – the purpose of the forest, the large and improbably number of love stories, why Rosalind and Orlando don’t find each other’s behaviour actually quite tiresome. But this production made it all sing. All credit to Rosalie Craig who as Rosalind was absolutely the heart and powerhouse of the production, carrying off impassioned maiden, cocky youngster (both in character as Rosalind playing a young man, and as Rosalind herself over-reaching in her deception) and even the fixer*.
I loved the staging, particularly the transition from court to forest, and the way the forbidding forest came to life with Orlando’s poems. The use of modern dress totally worked with different styles evoking different ages and circumstances of character (the young folk enter the wood in full hiking gear, while the older outlaws wear tweed). And there was the most fabulous set of wrestling costumes! But having Phebe as the only girl (not in disguise as a man) in trousers just seemed slightly out of place – it felt like it should have more meaning than it seemingly did. I kept trying to build Silvius and Phebe into a parallel of Rosalind and Orlando, but the comparison fell down because a single pair of trousers does not a sturdy foundation make…
Although National stagings are never exactly minimal, this one used a very limited set of special effects and relied largely on humans for mood. The sounds of the forest were made by people to great effect – particularly the pop and crackle of the fire (there was a real fire on stage – but only a very small and very well contained one!). The presence of “stagehands” also allowed for some great and very personal rain clouds. Fra Fee’s fabulous singing was a real plus. But best of all was when the cast appeared as sheep – they were, possibly, better sheep than the actual sheep in King Lear with Sheep** – the actors must have loved workshopping that scene.
The actors to mention apart from Rosalie Craig would probably be all of them. Patsy Ferran was a twitchy, nervy Celia, providing with small grimaces the commentary we were all thinking of Rosalind’s rash actions***. Alan Williams was great as Corin the shepherd. He managed to find the most astonishing laughs from what was a very dry part, giving a wonderful sense of a slow, stolid countryman – what you need in a shepherd, but not always in a comedy. Joe Bannister was a handsome – but not too drippy – Orlando, managing to carry off some very risqué lines while still seeming charming****. John Ramm as Duke Senior was the perfect venerable statesman, with just the sort of mien you’d expect your exiled Duke to have.
As You Like It is by no means a problem play but it does have a few oddities – Audrey, the simple (and, errr, very easily swayed goat girl), the religious conversion of Duke Frederick***** and melancholy Jacques, a man who just invites some sort of spurious modern medical diagnosis. This post-modern feeling was much enhanced by his seeming at one point – just by the way he laid his coat on the ground – to be preparing for a psycho-analysis session with Rosalind. Cleverness. That’s something else I expect from the National Theatre.
* In the style of the Duke in Measure for Measure but with rather more consent on the part of her pawns, and success on her own behalf.
** Certainly better trained!
*** I managed to resist the urge to corner her after the show and ask what happened at the end of Treasure Island…
**** Can I not say ‘I thank you’? My better parts
Are all thrown down; and that which here stands up
Is but a quintain, a mere lifeless block. Oh Will. Always with the knob gags…
***** Not quite a literal deus ex machina since you don’t see the god or his effect, just hear about it from a third person.