AS YOU LIKE IT
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 25th April, 2013
Maria Aberg’s production of one of Shakespeare’s more uneven comedies is a qualified success. It falls to a strong cast to lift the show out of some rather muddy ideas. It gets off to a good start. The opening exchanges between Orlando and old servant Adam, and then between Orlando and his big brother Oliver are very nicely played and staged, but when we move to the court of Duke Frederick, things take a turn for the bizarre. The courtiers do a dance, a jerky, spasmodic routine that I guess is meant to convey something about the confinements and restrictions placed on them. It’s a bit weird and distracts from the action of the scene and, what is most odd, we don’t get anything else like this throughout the piece. The idea is underused and undeveloped. The production gains nothing by its inclusion.
The wrestling scene is visceral. Malcolm Ranson has created more of a bare-knuckle fight than a wrestling match. Orlando proves to be enough of a biter to merit a signing as a professional footballer.
This play stands or falls on its Rosalind and Orlando. Aberg has two of the best I’ve seen. Pippa Nixon is spot on as the disenfranchised Duke’s daughter, assured enough to be witty and young enough to be swept away by love at first sight. She turns to cross-dressing as a means of survival, playing the comedy and the dramatic irony to the hilt. Her role-playing scenes with Orlando are funny and touching, eliciting many an ooh and an aww from the sixth-formers in the balcony. Nixon has been good in previous productions. In this one she is excellent.
Alex Waldmann makes his Orlando likeable from the start. His scenes with faithful old manservant Adam (David Fielder) are wonderful. Orlando’s affections become preoccupied with Rosalind and Waldmann is adorable in his halting attempts to compose a song for her. It is good to see him in more light-hearted scenes, and he plays them with truth and credibility.
Aberg’s Forest of Arden is foliage free and infested with new-age travellers, refugees from a Levellers’ concert. It all gets a bit too hippy-dippy and Glastonbury festival for my tastes. Melancholic Jaques (Oliver Ryan) is peculiar, tripping out to an acoustic guitar. The comic business between Touchstone and Audrey, and Silvius and Pheobe, is a little encumbered by the set – a sort of revolving gazebo affair. The play works best when the scenes are played in such a way that you can overlook the setting, ignore the fridge, and enjoy Shakespeare expertly delivered.
Luke Norris is very good as Oliver and John Stahl makes his mark as the tyrannical Duke – a pity we only hear about his demise rather than seeing him again but, hey ho, that’s Shakespeare. Michael Grady-Hall gives depth to the minor role of Silvius although his Phoebe (Natalie Klamar) is a little too annoying. Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone starts off as Charlie Cairoli from the waist up and Max Wall from the waist down, but ends up as a debauched Godspell reject. He tries to engage in some improvised patter with an audience member; hilariously it falls flat. “I’m back on the text now,” he points out, “We’ve got a long way to go.”
He’s right. It is a bit long and could stand a few cuts. Rosalind’s song, for example, during which a quartet of female characters parade around with flaming torches – the woman beside me leaned towards my ear and declared, “It’s like a sixth form play”. I think, all in all, I enjoyed the production more than she did, because of the actors and despite the director!