One of the RSC’s dimmer productions this year is the classic Shakespeare comedy ‘As You Like It’ which I recently went to see. Now although it’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, its story isn’t so commonly known, so perhaps a little synopsis is in order. Sitting comfortably? Jolly good. Like many Shakespeare plays we are introduced to the in medias res scenario of two duke brothers; Duke Frederick has usurped his elder brother, Duke Senior, forced him into the wilderness villainously, but has however “kindly” allowed Duke Senior’s beautiful daughter Rosalind to remain in the kingdom (for a bit, because he’s a top man like that). Rosalind’s only comfort in life is the company of her cousin Celia, until the foretold day arrives when the handsome Orlando enters her life. Love at first sight commences, but is swiftly shattered by Orlando’s persecution and banishment from the land by his elder brother Oliver. Nevertheless, as luck would have it, Duke Frederick suddenly decides he’s a tad annoyed at Rosalind and he too banishes her from the land – what a lucky coincidence; everyone’s landed up in the Forest of Arden!
However here’s the twist, a little disguise is involved, along with Shakespeare’s all favoured theme of sex change. Rosalind, running away with Celia and the jester Touchstone, decides to disguise herself as a man, which then later leads to a wonderful array of cross romances between herself, Orlando, and members of a small clan of exiled members of society (and yes, this does include her daddy dearest, Duke Senior).
Thus we have a play which is divided heavily between the solemn city walls, bleak and grey, to the colourful, festive freedom of the Forest of Arden – a division clearly highlighted within this RSC production, but unfortunately, this may be to its detriment.
This RSC production sets the play off in a 1940’s style black and white silent film; Touchstone resembling a crooked, cigar smoking, terrifying clown, the women dressed like widows in swooping, glittering black dresses, and the men donning 1940’s boxing attire, expressive of the twentieth century chivalric code alternative. Alongside this old fashioned staging is a static, traditionally stereotyped style f Shakespearean acting – lines delivered poetically rather than naturalistically, actors standing solemnly on the spot whilst speaking, rigid, Jacobean – in other words, tedious. I felt my heart sink at the sight, I’ve only ever seen lively productions of Shakespeare, and thus to be faced with such a monosyllabic production was painful. There was the odd modernistic choreography littered in the background in an attempt to liven up the scenes, however they seemed random and misplaced, nonsense almost, and beside their odd initial appearance at the beginning of the play, the motif was quickly dropped and didn’t reappear which weakened the choreograph further and slotted it into the category of ‘put on stage for the sake of it’.
Though it appears the old fashioned style of acting was intended, for as soon as the setting beautifully transformed into the Forest of Arden, the actors came alive, as did the production. The play breathed character and naturalism, excitement, humour and beauty. Unfortunately by the time this fantastic transformation occurred I was already rather worn out by the disappointment of the first slightly tedious forty-five minutes, and was n longer in the mood to enjoy the production. So, I understood their artistic motif – to bring the magic of the forest alive by starkly contrasting it to the initial dreariness of the kingdom (exemplified by static acting and dreary costume), however, this failed to work effectively being as the dreariness and static-ness had gone on for too long. What was also disappointing was the discarding of the 1940’s theme – the Forest of Arden was filled with seventies hippies, which was incredibly well presented and wonderfully done, but again it lacked a sense of purpose – the production seemed to lack a clear line of thought; it seemed slap handed, rather random: modernistic choreography used once, 1940’s becoming 1970’s, traditional, stereotyped Shakespearean acting to realistic acting – it all seemed thrown together by desire rather than intent.
Nevertheless the productions second half was far more fulfilling – the characters of the Forest were brilliantly presented and the music and song was phenomenal. The stage setting of the exiled campers’ campsite was a hippy paradise and brilliantly inclusive, as an audience member I felt drawn in and excited by it, and the modern interpretations of sexual innuendos were originally fronted (and successfully hilarious). The interval allowed me to recover from the disappointing first act of the play and ready to engage with the classic comedy fully – the festival at the end of the play was worth it, believe me.
So if you are preparing to see this production, please go in open minded: do not be off put by the production’s initial slow pace, traditional delivery as I was, do not let it dampen our spirit, for it will brighten into a fantastical play – I’m rather sorry no one warned me beforehand to expect thus, for my tibial disappointment waited me so much that I was enable to embrace it as much as it deserved to be, for I do state strongly that it is a worth while production to see!