As You Like It
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Polly Findlay
Set Designed by Lizzie Clachan
Music by Orland Gough
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London
Friday 4th December 2015, evening
There’s an odd thing about As You Like It. I’ve seen it often enough, but I couldn’t sit down and explain the plot to you just like that. I’d have no problem with Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors, Much Ado, Midsummer Night’s Dream but somehow As You Like It escapes me. So in the words of songwriter Ani de Franco, I’m like a goldfish swimming round a bowl. The little plastic castle is a surprise every time. Much as I hate mentioning previous productions, the 2013 RSC production was the best production I’ve seen, and is the benchmark. And one of my greatest theatrical disappointments was the 1989 John Caird production of As You Like It (with Alan Cummings as Silvius). Extremely dull, right after Caird’s brilliant Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Rosalind (Rosalie Craig, kneeling) and Celia (Patsy Feran), are about to be banished together
Both the previous plays we’ve seen directed by Polly Findlay, The Merchant of Venice and Arden of Faversham have been modern dress. This is also modern dress, initially set in a large open plan office. The National Theatre seems to stick with one Shakespeare a year now, in the Olivier Theatre, and it’s a huge and spectacular production with a full cast, and lots of extras. Thirty-six in total. As with the overblown King Lear last year you have to think too much money is being thrown at a single production. The National has left the Shakespeare running to The Globe, the RSC and indeed The Young Vic have done two Shakespeare this autumn. The National sticks to the one. And overspends.
This is major concept. The city section is a crowded office with everyone working away in bright jackets with the plant maintenance guy/ cleaner in a bright green jacket with “De Bois” corporate logo. This office scene is operating for fifteen minutes before the play starts, as you go in. We guessed that Orlando was the one in green watering the bonsai on the desks and cleaning a perspex screen. It’s a crowded set, and the carpet is in bright pastel squares.
Duke Frederic announces the wrestling match in the office set
The wrestling match: Orlando (Joe Bannister) and Charles (Leon Annor)
The principles … Duke Frederick, Rosalind and Celia are not on in the office pre-scenes. The office scene has a green mat rolled out for the wresting scene which may not happen regularly at your local corporate HQ, with the whole office (thirty?) crowded behind watching. Charles the wrestler is huge. Leon Annor is an impressively large guy, twice or three times Orlando’s girth. With the shiny blue and gold costume of Charles and the bright red of Orlando’s wrestling kit, the scene is a visual delight … as I remembered from Arden of Faversham, this director likes hard bright colour. But only so far …
The Forest of Arden. Jacques (Paul Chahidi) centre
The set change to the Forest of Arden is a major technical feat … all the desks are hoisted into the air, and you realize the chairs are connected by chains to the desks and are hoisted up too, so the forest is a dangling mass of black metal suspended above the stage. One chain broke free … deliberate? I thought so. The carpet disappeared to reveal what is becoming a ubiquitous loose cinder effect shattered tarmac forest floor… how many times have we seen that in he last three years? The Forest of Arden felt as if it were underground, not green or sylvan. The bright colours of the office space disappear, and Duke Senior’s men are in grubby, shabby macs and outdoor clothes. Rosalind, now disguised as a man, Ganymede, is in a dull blue bodywarmer. Orlando’s in greys. Only Celia with her tartan skirt, pretty cardie and crimson tights has any colour … Audrey is bright in a white and blue frock too. Also it’s cold. Everyone’s shivering. We didn’t grasp the concept … it was the Forest of Arden as Lear’s blasted heath. Domenic Cavendish’s review in the Telegraph called it “An anti-Edenic Dismaland” and that’s so true. You seek the pastoral magic in As You Like It. There isn’t any.
The music is accapella with a large chorus filling in vocal riffs. Four or five chorus members climb into the mass of metal and find chairs suspended high up. They supply the sound effects vocally live throughout, wind, birds, goats bleating. It’s extremely effective. This, coupled with the number of times when cast members stayed on stage watching, reminded us of Peter Brooks’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact the shepherd stood in the corner of the front stage for the whole of the second part. Celia was constantly on in the background whenever Orlando and Rosalind (as Ganymede) were at the front.
Though there’s no thrust stage, the forest scenes benefitted from rapid entrances and exits, one pair half off, one half on at the same time. The coming and going was high speed.
A production of this magnitude should have a ‘Gasp! I’ve never seen that idea before!’ Here it was the sheep. As Jacques and Touchstone debate, the stage fills with the cast on all fours, all wearing wooly white sweaters as sheep. Everyone’s on except Rosalind, Celia and Orlando. The bleats, bumping and business is beautifully timed and so funny that I have to admit I lost much of the dialogue … not that anyone ever upstaged it. It all fitted and meshed. Two sheep a ram and a ewe, we’re told (both men) are put together … and appear together at the curtain call too. A tremedous and unforgettable idea. It reminded me of the agricultural changes of Tudor England … which also appear in Wolf Hall … the spread of intensive sheep farming was a disaster for many of the rural poor. A few shepherds replaced intensive farming. Maybe that’s why it’s cold and blasted!
Celia (Patsy Feran) and Rosalind (Rosalie Craig)
Another nice touch was that one of the rustic swains got caught in a sudden small shower twice as the object of his desire fled. It was only over him. Both Silvius and William were charmingly open-mouthed. Interestingly, they didn’t go for Mummerset, just slightly “off” for the swains and Phoebe, though Audrey had an Irish accent. Phoebe was thin and slight, Audrey was buxom to make a good visual contrast. Audrey is so important to the play in spite of the short time she is on stage. A perfect Audrey here.
Mark Benton as Touchstone is a Northern old hippy, larger than life. Paul Chahidi as Jacques is in a sharp suit. Both are consummate actors who we have seen before. For comedy, Paul Chahidi ranked with Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry in the Globe’s authentic practices Twelfth Night. Jacques has the Seven Ages of Man speech, and brought new and interesting timing … well, you have to. Both are parts which I think are difficult in the 21st century, and in a way the play has one “clown” too many, and both worked.
Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) and Orlando (Joe Bannister) sitting on cinders
Our principles are Rosalie Craig as Rosalind, and Joe Bannister as Orlando. The part of Rosalind’s enduring appeal for actresses is the gender switch. Rosalie Craig was aided by her distinctive red hair being long, then cropped short … though no one explains how it was long again in the finale. Other productions have her hair tucked up in a cap (giving her something nervous to fiddle with as it tries to escape). The tight bodywarmer concealed all curves. We thought the direction here lost a lot of opportunities … there were not the expected mistaken switches between girlie voice and obviously put on male voice. Just the one sudden girlie scream. No attempts at hearty male slaps on the shoulder or strong handshakes. The only “Phew! It’s a girl” bit was when Oliver (Orlando’s brother) inadvertently patted her breast. The decision was to put all the comedy on Celia and to play Rosalind very straight as a man. So Rosalind’s comedy while acting as a man was placed largely on Celia’s reactions right behind or beside her.
Oliver (Philip Arditti) and Celia (Patsy Feran)
Whenever you see a major version of one of the big comedies, you emerge saying, “Well, that was the best (X) I’ve ever seen …” It may of course be failure to adequately recall the last one, but our vote on this was “Patsy Feran was the best Celia we’ve ever seen.” Actually, I think it’s the more fun part to do. She had played Portia in the RSC Merchant of Venice this year. She is a superb natural comedian, with the facial mobilty of Rowan Atkinson, and the ability to put herself into any number of hilariously awkward stances and moves. Comedy is her forté. As Polly Findlay had directed her in the Merchant, I’d assume that there was a conscious choice to rely on Celia to carry 90% of the comedy and to focus on that. That’s why she hovered when not actually in a scene. With this Celia, it was a good decision. It allowed Rosalind to be played with sincerity.
Rosalind (pretending to be Ganymede) and Orlando
Orlando was played with sweetness, diffidence and charm by Joe Bannister. The love scenes were believable.Overall? We thought the production overwhelmed the beauty of the play and the metal and cinders forest could not create the necessary magic.
THREE STARS ***
Set design? Technically – 5 stars. Conceptually? – 2 stars.
The variation in reviews is astonishing:
Domenic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph … 2 stars **
Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail … 2 stars, **
Michael Billington, The Guardian … 3 stars, ***
Neil Norman, Daily Express … 3 stars, ***
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard … 3 stars ***
Paul Taylor, The Independent … 4 stars, ****
Alice Saville, Time Out … 4 stars ****
Susannah Clapp, The Observer … 5 stars, *****
It was hard for us to decide on three stars. My companion was firmly on two stars, and hated the set. She said she came out feeling cheated of the magic of the play, and cheated of the feel-good factor of the ending. I argued the five star performances of Celia and Audrey and the concept of the sheep and the vocal accompaniment throughout. Otherwise, I was hovering between three and four. Three was a joint decision. Interestingly, whenever the critics have a wide spread of ratings, we tend to end up the same as Michael Billington.
RELATED REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG
Miss Julie / Black Comedy – Chichester
The Merchant of Venice, RSC 2o15 (Portia)
The Roaring Girl – RSC, 2014