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As You Like It

by on 9 November 2017

Kooky Capers in a Bare Forest

As You Like It

By William Shakespeare

Shared Experience, in co-production with Theatre by the Lake
at Richmond Theatre until 11thNovember, then on tour until 9th December

Review by Mark Aspen

When Richmond Theatre opened on 18th September 1899 as Frank Matcham’s latest architectural tour de force, it’s first offering was As You Like It , but would that staid audience have recognised the latest offering of William Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy that opened its national touring version this week?

They may have been a little bemused by Shared Experience’s colourful kooky setting, and perhaps by the exuberant inclusion of contemporary dance and music, but they would have been at home with the familiar words, as the production has been true to Shakespeare’s script. All of the play’s well-known songs are there, but with sparkling new adaptations by composer Richard Hammarton, whose powerful sound designs set the mood. With the inclusion of movement director Siân Williams’ dances, the production edges towards “As You Like It, the Musical”.

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Now, what about this setting? It is meant to be 2017, and has modern paraphernalia such as mobile phones. However, it often feels more 1967 with its flower-power hippies and Gilbert Scott red phone box. Shakespeare clearly wanted to contrast the two worlds of As You Like It , the stern court in the city and the idyllic Forest of Arden in the countryside. Designer Libby Watson has certainly achieved the contrast. The court becomes a politicians’ committee room (Portcullis House rather the Palace of Westminster), black and white, charcoal coloured faux-suede walls, off-white faux-marble floor; Nespresso machine, water cooler: stark. The countryside is full of colour, open, bare; Phone box, bench: exposed. When the back wall of the room unzips to reveal the country, it impacts with a momentary wow … but then there follows wait-a-minute thoughts. The pastoral pastel of the foreground clashes with the lighting designer Chris Davey’s cyclorama of saturated light-washes. There are beautifully stylised poetical images projected across the cyc, but also across the stage items, leaving their shadows on the scene and with their edges visible. Isn’t this meant to be a sanctuary beyond the reach of the Duke’s henchmen? It looks like the edge of Richmond Park, but scruffy, a recreation ground accessible by supermarket trolleys. Why has Arden got the Duke’s water-cooler? Why is the telephone box crammed with bookshelves? And why does a forest have only one Waiting for Godot bare tree, that doesn’t so much sway in the wind as wobble at the roots?

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Strangely though, all this quirkiness works, even if its surrealistic symbolism doesn’t percolate through. It its own characteristic way, Shared Experience has for forty years championed a style that merges physical theatre with a rediscovery of the text. Director Kate Saxon, in this As You Like It , has a natural fluent telling of the story, savouring Shakespeare’s words, but its potency comes from a juxtaposition of styles from film noir to pastoral idyll to panto comedy. Hence the country comedy is highlighted against the threatening city, and what a contrast.

The strong opening pitches brothers Oliver and Orlando in an explicitly violent fight. (Fight director Kevin McCurdy aims to shock at several points during the play.) Orlando’s near strangulation of Oliver prompts him to use Charles the wrestler as a hit-man to get his revenge, but Orlando triumphs in a no-holds-barred punch-up across the committee room table. Equally, Duke Frederick is a hard man, a yer-don’t-mess-with-me geyser, not averse to personally meting out a good beating, followed by water-boarding using one of the ubiquitous water-coolers. These, thankfully short, Tarantino-esque episodes form a foil for the broad comedy to follow.

Some of the actors are called to play multiple roles, which with great versatility and a variety of accents they differentiate admirably. Hence, in a very strong performance, Alex Parry plays not only the violent Duke Frederick and in contrast his laid-back brother, Duke Senior, whom Frederick had usurped, but the sheep-farmer Corin.

Perhaps the widest versatility is asked of Matthew Darcy, who amongst other roles dexterously portrays Oliver, Amiens (as a Scottish New-Age musician!) and the country wench Audrey. His Audrey, pig-tailed and bobby-socked, is reminiscent of a pubescent Grayson Perry. The comedy is taken towards knockabout pantomime in Audrey’s scenes with her amoretto, the joker Touchstone, played with expansive mock-gravitas by Matthew Mellalieu, as a Screaming Lord Sutch lookalike in orange crocs and red velvet drape jacket. Mellalieu earlier doubles as Adam, Orlando’s faithful old servant and one of the most sympathetic characters in the whole Shakespearean canon. He plays the part well, but casting such a robust heart-of-oak actor as the frail and halt octogenarian doesn’t quite work.

Having doubled as Charles, the wrestler, we later see Adam Buchanan as Silvius, the young shepherd, whom he plays to the hilt as a gormless, lovelorn swain. The object of his affections is Phoebe, pertly portrayed by Josie Dunn, whose lithe and vivacious acting is complemented by lively musicianship: a plaintive clarinet solo and energetic saxophone accompaniment to the music played live by five members of the cast. Their music and dancing keeps the pace of the play moving.

Richard Keightley, a very camp Le Beau at the beginning of the play, makes a fine Jacques (here described as Cultural Secretary to Duke Senior) in an insightful interpretation of the role. His rendering of the Seven Ages of Man speech, growingly despairingly morose at the prospect of old age, makes perfect sense in view of his self-proclaimed melancholia.

 

Although As You Like It has a number of parallel themes including a four mirrored love stories, it really revolves around Rosalind, the daughter of the exiled Duke Senior, who herself spends most of the play banished to Arden disguised as a the young man, Ganymede. In this role, Jessica Hayles makes a charming and playful fugitive, energetic in her hopes and highly animated in her emotions, expressed in neatly choreographed mute movement sequences. Orlando, love-struck for Rosalind, and seemly fooled by the Ganymede masquerade, is convincingly acted by Nathan Hamilton in a strong performance, full of teenage urgency and anxieties. Rosalind has escaped from the court with her cousin, Celia, the daughter of Duke Frederick, who in Shakespeare’s script shares in the despairs, hopes and aspirations of her cousin. However, Layo-Christina Akinlude’s performance in the role was totally tangential to these emotions. She puts across a bored and cynical take on the character, antithetical to Rosalind.

It may seem sniffy to say that production is clearly pitched at the first-time Shakespeare audience, but it seems to want to say more than that. (There are some side-swipes at current politics, Duke Frederick coming across as a Jean-Claude Juncker, an unelected tyrant usurping the legitimate sovereignty of Duke Senior, while a poster in the forest proclaims “Stags for Remain”, oblivious that they will soon become EU venison.) The production may want to say something about current social conflicts around the roles of men and women, but falls short of pulling that from the text.

Nevertheless, with its bold visual impact, musical interludes and intelligent dialogue As You Like It was well received by the young Richmond press night audience. It is fun and makes for enjoyable entertainment; it is colourful and makes for good visual theatre; it enjoys Shakespeare’s words and makes for good story telling. Enjoyable entertainment, good visual theatre, good story telling: all the things that the Richmond audience of September 1899 recognised… oh, and Shakespeare’s words.

Mark Aspen
November 2017

Photography by Keith Pattison

 

 

From → Drama, Reviews

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