Reviewed by James Karas
In the epilogue to As You Like It, Rosalind tells us that good wine does not need to be enhanced by a bush but tavern owners do use good bushes for good wines. It is equally true that old wines do not need new bottles but they are no doubt poured into them occasionally if only to keep the current proverb alive since Shakespeare’s is not clear without the help of a footnote.
Putting old plays in new bottles occurs with every production but there is no doubt that some bottles are better than other. This holds true for the current production of As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon.
Director Maria Aberg, Designer Naomi Dawson and Movement Director Ayse Tashkiran have set the play in a modern non-realistic setting and added Molly dancing. According to Tashkiran, these are country dances “danced by men and women dressed up in exuberant disguises and drag.”
There is indeed a lot of dancing in the production which generates a great deal of energy and the performance evokes quite a few laughs but in the end failed to resonate with me as being a completely satisfactory vision of a favourite play.
In the second scene where we meet Rosalind and Celia in the Court of Duke Senior, there are some well-dressed people at the back performing a type of robotic dance. They move their hands and bodies like automatons. The result is that they are distracting us from the performance and the text.
Most of the play takes place in the Forest of Arden, a very different and transformative world from the world of the court. What does the forest consist of? A number of 4” x 4” wooden posts with something like dead leaves on the floor. There is a band on stage to play some loud music and provide accompaniment for the songs. This is a sterile world and if it is supposed to be yet another way of bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century, please stop and let me off the ship. It is not a pleasant sight.
As You Like It is a comedy of love set against the background of a coup d'état and usurpation of the power of the rightful Duke. The foreground of the play is the friendship of Rosalind, the daughter of the overthrown Duke and her cousin Celia, the daughter of the usurper.
Rosalind, played beautifully by Pippa Nixon, is a tall and slender woman with short-cropped hair who pretends to be a man in the forest and falls in love with Orlando (Alex Waldmann), another victim of usurpation. Nixon has a marvellous delivery of Shakespearean verse and makes a splendid Rosalind.
Celia (Joanna Horton) has her own love interest in Oliver (Luke Norris), the transformed brother of Orlando. The two are accompanied by the fool Touchstone, superbly done by Nicolas Tennant. The pursuit of love among the gentry and the country bumpkins goes into high gear. By the time the play finishes, the stage will be strewn with brides and grooms as becomes a good comedy.
The Duke has some interesting companions in the forest including the grumpy Jaques (Oliver Ryan) and singer Amiens (Chris Jared). The country bumpkins such as the shepherdess Phoebe (Natalie Klamar), the shepherd Silvius (Michael Grady-Hill), the goatherd Audrey (Rosie Hilal) and her lover William (Mark Holgate) are guaranteed generators of laughter.
Aberg is not above in letting the actors abandon the text and engage the audience directly to hilarious effect.
My issue is not with individual performers but with the overall conception of the play presented by Aberg and her collaborators. We want, indeed demand, fresh interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays and look forward to the fresh, the new, the unexpected, and the miraculous. Sometimes we get it. This production did not have that effect on me.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare opened on April 24 and will continue in repertory until September 28, 2013 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. http://www.rsc.org.uk/