Alan Rickman, Gemma Lawrence, Joe Banister, Ken Nwosu, Leo Wringer, Leon Annor, Mark Benton, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Patrick Godfrey, Patsy Ferran, Paul Chahidi, Philip Arditti, Rosalie Craig, Siobhan McSweeney, William Shakespeare
One of the things that Shakespeare did throughout his career was draw attention to the very theatricality of his plays. Think of the role of Chorus in Henry V, or the play within a play that is The Taming of the Shrew. As You Like It is very much of the same company; it is, after all, the play in which Jacques delivers his famous speech beginning “All the world’s a stage …”. Given that, therefore, it is well worth giving serious attention to how the play is staged.
In the recent RSC production of Henry V, for instance, the play opens with a throne and crown placed centre stage. Chorus comes on and begins his prologue, idly picking up the crown as he does so; at which point the actor playing Henry, not yet fully in costume and clutching a plastic water bottle, storms on stage, grabs the crown, and marches off again. It’s a neat bit of funny business, but it also perfectly encapsulates the difference between play and “play”. Similarly, the Globe production of The Taming of the Shrew that we saw a few years back begins with a drunken member of the audience staggering onto the stage and suddenly being transformed into the leading actor in the play within a play.
Bearing that in mind, the current National Theatre production of As You Like It begins as one of the worst stagings of a Shakespeare play that I can recall seeing; and then transforms itself into one of the best.
But to begin at the beginning. Orlando (Joe Bannister) first appears cleaning the tables in what I would take to be a rather cheap fast food joint, while his servant Adam (Patrick Godfrey), from context, would seem to be his manager. No, it doesn’t really make sense, does it. But then a whistle sounds and we discover that these restaurant tables are now desks in a rather crowded open plan office, and this office is really the court of Duke Frederick (Leo Wringer, the only person in this part of the play who speaks quietly, everyone else shouts as though they are trying to make themselves heard above the noise of the scenery). Look, I could just about accept an office standing in for the Duke’s court, except that the major thing we see happening in the court is the wrestling match in which Orlando defeats the Duke’s champion, Charles (Leon Annor), and quite frankly a wrestling match in an office is simply ludicrous.
By this time, Maureen and I are looking at each other, rolling our eyes, and wondering if it is going to be worth slipping out at the interval. The performances are so shouty, the setting so silly, that it is impossible to get any coherent idea of what is going on. Indeed, all that might make it worth staying are Patsy Ferran as Celia (Duke Frederick’s daughter) and Rosalie Craig as Rosalind (the exiled Duke Senior’s daughter). We had seen Patsy Ferran only last year playing a magnificent Portia in the RSC’s wonderful Merchant of Venice (that, apparently, was only her second role after leaving RADA; it’s hard to believe, she is a mesmerisingly good actor). We hadn’t seen Rosalie Craig before, but she was every bit as good, and the two sparked off each other so well that when they were on stage together you really couldn’t take your eyes off them.
At this point, wicked Duke Frederick exiles Rosalind; Celia declares undying friendship, and the two head off together into the wild wood. And suddenly …
And suddenly all the desks and chairs and office paraphernalia cluttering the stage rise into the air. Dangling on wires, turning slowly, in a dim and misty light, they become a surreal representation of a tree and hence stand for the forest. There are figures, only vaguely discernable, some hanging in mid air, some sitting at the back of the stage. As the play progresses, they will make animal calls or provide acapella accompaniment to the various songs. And as suddenly as the stage is transformed, so the play is transformed. Rather than a clunky satire, it becomes a farce, characters are forever running back and forth through the shadowy tree, hiding from each other, meeting and parting abruptly. They adopt transparent disguises, they set each other ludicrous tasks. They fade in and out of the background so there’s something almost ghostly about it. It becomes everything the play should be, fast and furious, funny and moving, base and clever. And all of these different registers, each of which had been missed in the first couple of scenes, is now hit spot on.
It is a play full of remarkable women. Rosalind and Celia are, of course, to the fore, but there’s also Audrey, the knowing country woman (Siobhan McSweeney), and Phoebe, the willful shepherdess (Gemma Lawrence). In comparison the men who court them (for this is a play full of men chasing after women, literally in this staging), Orlando and his reformed brother Oliver (Philip Arditti) and the shepherd boy Silvius (Ken Nwosu), are wimps, weak, unmanned by their strong women. This is literalised in the courting of Orlando and Rosalind: she is in male disguise, as Ganymede, which he does not penetrate. When he confesses to Ganymede his love for Rosalind, Ganymede sets him the task of wooing him as though he were Rosalind. Throughout this, she constantly puts him down, belittles and deflects his attentions. In none of these relationships will the male end up master of the household. Of the four male lovers, only the clown, Touchstone (brilliantly played by Mark Benton) is a match for his woman, Audrey, and that by accepting her as equal from the start.
As You Like It is unusual not only in having so many strong female part, but in its clowns. There is, of course, Touchstone who fulfils the traditional clown’s role as sly commentator upon the foibles of his betters. But there is also the mordant Jacques, a figure detached from the court-in-exile of Duke Senior and always standing at an angle to whatever is happening. The last time Maureen and I saw this play, Jacques was played by Alan Rickman (it was one of the first times we ever saw him on stage, and he mesmerised in the way that Patsy Ferran does here), and after that it became impossible to imagine anyone else playing that role. We wondered, therefore, how this production would handle the part, and, indeed, Paul Chahidi was channeling his inner Alan Rickman; but he did it remarkably well. In a production full of amazing women and generally lacklustre men, Chahidi and Mark Benton were easily the two standout male performers. And then there’s Corin, the old countryman (Alan Williams), who is not exactly a clown but who stands apart from the action and comments dryly upon events in a way often associated with the clown role. In one hilarious scene he presided over members of the company dressed in
white woolly jumpers and on all fours who played sheep, very well.
The problem with As You Like It, as with rather too many of Shakespeare’s plays, is that he has no idea how to end the damned thing. So he throws in a miracle, or in this case: two. First there is Oliver, Orlando’s evil older brother, who begins the play plotting against his brother in order to set the drama in motion. Oliver then disappears for the rest of the first half, only to reappear part way through the second half having undergone a miraculous change of heart, so that he can become Celia’s love interest. Then, at the very end, a previously unmentioned and unknown brother of Orlando and Oliver appears out of nowhere to announce that Duke Frederick has also undergone a miraculous change of heart and the way is now clear for Duke Senior to reclaim his throne and everyone is restored to their rightful place in society. The fact that this previously unheralded brother is also called Jacques (although the name only appears in the cast list, it is not mentioned in any speech) rather suggests that this is a careless afterthought designed to just tidy things away. And the whole thing ends with four marriages and lots of singing and dancing and all is happy (though you suspect that the marriage of Phoebe and Silvius isn’t likely to be particularly happy, and Celia and Rosalind will certainly be the dominant partners in their respective marriages).