This was my second As You Like It. The first one was a timeless tour de force but perhaps a bit in the National Theatre style, and this time round I was looking for something a bit more rugged and (whisper it) heartfelt… Shared Experience (currently on tour) have put together a performance which is expressive and of its time.
The setting combined a simple stage with much use of multimedia (especially for the animals of the forest). The first part, at court, was all hard and dark and sharp (a black table set against a backdrop which looked like it was the riveted panels of a very large ship). At first I thought the noise was a stage management failing (all the props seemed designed to generate vast amounts of extraneous clatter) – but it was clear when we got to Arden that it had been deliberate to make the court as unpleasant as possible, in contrast to the white, bright, spacious forest, with its sounds of birdsong and music.
The costuming, like the setting, could be best described as unremarkable modern. The hipster touch of a phone-box library seemed a little out-of-place (as did the posh coffee machine) but I enjoyed the various uses to which the cast put the water cooler! Slightly more alarming was the single tree of Arden which most of the cast climbed at some point in the performance and which swayed somewhat ominously (I can only hope there was a sturdy steel rod somewhere up the middle of it).
The lighting (or possible the blocking) unfortunately left a little something to be desired – the actors silhouetted the multimedia, and occasionally seemed to get stuck delivering lines in their own shadow – I suspect this is one of the areas where a tour is not an advantage – slightly longer for tech might have solved it. But on balance, it was a minor irritation which didn’t get too much in the way of the cast’s performance.
My first impression of the cast was that they were all. So. Flipping. Young. It was especially awkward for Matthew Mellalieu, given the aged Adam’s lines unchanged – “Though I look old, yet I am strong and lusty” – well, not exactly… His Touchstone was excellent – especially in the delivery of those rolling ridiculous speeches of his [as set out by the always-wonderful Good Tickle Brain] – I felt like the cheering at the end of the section on the types of lies…
Adam Buchanan gave us Charles the wrestler, Silvius the lovelorn, and a *very* free-thinking Sir Oliver Martext who appeared sans trousers. I am pretty sure it was a deliberate costuming choice and not a terrible mishap- if the latter, he definitely styled it out… Josie Dunn (one of the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) was a chilly courtier and a Phebe played perfectly in the balance between shrewish and exasperated that you could believe a happy ending for her and Silvius (who was annoyingly drippy, to be fair). Alex Parry played both Dukes – usurper and usurped (which makes a lot sense, actually, and not just because it explains why James Sheldon’s random extra brother has to turn up at the end to explain the Duke has got his kingdom back).
The most monumental moments of doubling-up fell to the lot of Matthew Darcy (who I apparently saw in King Lear back in 2014 – but he played “soldier” so I am forgiving myself for not remembering him…) as Oliver, one of Duke Frederick’s advisers, Amiens, AND Audrey the goatherd – the latter played in very Grayson Perry-ish style. He had so much doubling-up that all he can have had time to do backstage was change costume. Indeed, at one point he entered a tent onstage as one character and left as another – but it sort-of worked in context, as well as adding to fun.
Jacques (I know what you are all wondering, and it was pronounced something along the lines of jack-quiz) was played by Richard Keightley as neither so completely melancholy, nor so sharp as the uncut script portrayed him, but I liked him for his unaffected pleasure in the eccentricities of others and his sincere ambition for a motley coat.
Our first introduction to Orlando made him out to be so very violent that I had some lingering sympathy for Oliver all the way through (which may help with being happy about his marrying Celia at the end) – but Nathan Hamilton’s interpretation soon settled down into an impetuous but well-meaning young man, if clearly outmatched in the brain department by Jessica Hayles’s clearer thinking, but no less impetuous, Rosalind. They had a lovely tender chemistry which didn’t quite translate to the boisterous matey-ness which might lend verisimilitude to Rosalind’s deception, but which definitely had you rooting for them to properly be together. Rosalind and Layo-Christina Akinlude’s Celia also had an easy affection – tempered with the kind of eye-rolling vexation (and tendency to egg each other on) you get in families. They played off each other very nicely as a pair – Rosalind’s energy and optimism vs Celia’s more passive and sceptical nature.
This was a very musical production – As You Like It has plenty of songs and I don’t think any were cut entirely, although they may have been curtailed. And there was dance – or at least movement – which served to highlight the passions of various characters but it felt to me didn’t always add massively to our understanding or move the plot along. It was very effective in small bursts, like the little hint we got from an oppressed and frustrated Rosalind during the first half – showing how she would grow when she had escaped from the oppression of court.
One thing I did notice was how many set pieces Shakespeare writes in, how every character gets at least one good speech. But I think my recent cue-script experience made me hyper-aware of reactions on stage, and on occasion it did feel like one or two members of the cast were just there waiting for their next line rather than being actively in the scene.
It was very definitely a different beast to the National’s As You Like It – possibly less polished, but no less innovative or entertaining.