Under the greenwood tree,
Who loves to lie with me.
The Royal Shakespeare Company are pushing their audience on to the stage in this inclusive new take on the woodland romance, As You Like It – the production’s programme talks much of breaking down the boundary between actor and audience and, though a nice idea, one can’t help their mind from wandering to the other art form to exploit this boundary: pantomime.
Our Arden is a theatre: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s ropes and pulleys on show, the costumes pulled together seemingly randomly from the department, the announcement of “all actors to the stage please” echoing through the auditorium as the house lights rise. This is self-conscious theare: for actor and audience. We are kept from becoming immersed in the chaos of the lovers’ forest, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing something by not feeling lost in it. The forest sure is populated – audience and all – so it feels voyeuristic rather than intimate at times.
There are things to like in Kimberley Sykes‘ production: a lot of the audience interaction is fun and engaging – the kids were loving it – and Orlando’s summoning of an inexplicable disco-ball is a sweet touch. But it is Sykes’ direction as a whole which, I believe, lets the play down. Much of the interaction falls a little too far on the side of panto, the set is bafflingly nothing-y, the production lacks a sense of style (the transition between court and forest is the only moment of striking stagecraft I can bring to mind), and there are dialogue changes which just feel unnecessary.
I hate to sound like a Shakespeare purist – but never have I thought, when listening to Jacques say, “And one man in his time plays many parts”, oh! That clearly doesn’t mean me! Because I am a woman! Man is not gender specific; it is mankind. The change feels jarring, pandering, and it pulls one out of the moment.
And the puppet – not for me. There was a bristling in the audience when it was revealed. What was it doing there, and why? These questions went unanswered.
Many of the performances are a testament to the piece. Our central player Rosalind, played by Lucy Phelps, really hits her stride about half way through. It is a double-edged sword to see a production so early in its run. On one hand, the lack of production pictures and reviews heighten a sense of wonder – everything is fresh, unexpected, exciting. However, on the other hand, one must also occasionally deal with the feeling that a production isn’t quite ready yet. I am sure that Phelps will get better over the course of the run. The latter half of her performance was certainly promising – comedic, cheeky, energetic, but with a real pathos that I have rarely seen granted Rosalind (more commonly given to Shakespeare’s other cross-dressing heroine, Viola). There is a sadness there – and it’s lovely.
Anthony Byrne is commanding here – far better suited to this than his Marc Antony two years ago – and his switch from Duke to Duke is satisfying. His reaction to Jacques’ departure at the end of the play is beautifully pitched. Sandy Grierson is marvellously cold as the fool Touchstone – done up like he’s going to a Rocky Horror party, just a bit sleazy, just a bit nasty (his Angelo in Measure for Measure should be great). But it is the most impressive performance of the piece that Sykes’ direction hurts the most – frustratingly. Leo Wan as Orlando’s impetuous brother, Oliver. Physically dwarfed, suited and proud – this take on Oliver (in my opinion, the most interesting character of the play) is excellent. He is tremblingly self-conscious, spinelessly pathetic, wavering on the edge of collapse, maliciously faking tears before switching them off with a single glance as he swings malevolently. Wan must be a star in the making, certainly underused this season in Stratford. Easily the most interesting characterisation in the play, which makes it criminal that Oliver is so heavily sidelined here. His torture scene is brief and under-played, shoved to the beginning of the play so it loses its contrast against the romance. There is not enough time given to his reformation so – despite Wan’s efforts – it just feels wrong.
It is frustration more than anything that fuels my opinion of this summer’s As You Like It – because it wasn’t bad! I laughed. I was entertained. I felt charmed by parts of it. But it could have been so much better. If Sykes stepped back and let her actors do the talking, with just a bit of finesse and thought, this production could be a romantic thrill. But, as it is, it is an underwhelming romp that lacks real drama.