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This is the fashionista production of the season. Even if it didn’t boast the commercially alluring presence of a celebrity starlet, it would be acclaimed for being chic and mannered, dominated by the stylised direction of David Lan, design of Richard Hudson and music of Tim Sutton.
These three collaborators impose a unified visual and musical evocation of 1940s France under which As You Like It and most of its characters lie buried, almost completely bogged down by the over-insistent and intrusive interpretation. The café life, the melancholy sound of the accordion, the conversations of philosophes and sophisticated young women testing the limits of their emancipation, all find a plausible place in the setting, but the motifs are taken to ludicrous extremes.
At one moment, the Forest of Arden resembles the set of ’Allo ’Allo, with the natives speaking in cod French accents. If only they were as funny as a silly old sit-com! But Silvius and Phoebe are rendered monotonous, and their potentially delightful scenes with Rosalind are wasted in tedious affectation. The Forest itself on its first showing has apparently just been cut down following the arrival of Duke Senior and his court as it’s no more than scrubland, a few pathetic bundles of twigs set in front of the backstage brick wall of the Wyndham’s Theatre.
The supporting cast have been chosen for their versatile musical accomplishments, as they sing and play instruments to a very high standard. Unfortunately, their speaking voices for the demands of the text are dull and in some cases unpleasant to listen to. Clive Rowe as a jovial, music-addicted Duke sings utterly beautifully, but some of the accompaniments are too long and his repeated cry for more music sounds like a threat to an audience sitting through a show that runs just under 3 hours. The text itself is cut, so a lot of the time is used up by business. A few minutes are wasted every now and again by the ensemble doing a routine across the stage in which they resemble umbrella-carrying refugees from a mime school.
The camp finale is effected by Hymen in the character of a twinkle-toed, sly boulevardier, with a scary fixed grin, salaciously overseeing the union of so many pairs of lovers that they look as if they are “coming to the Ark” (successful big laugh for Reece Shearsmith’s Jacques on this line). The problem with this Jacques is that he’s not really melancholy. Shearsmith is set up in the character of an existentialist philosophe, but the director and actor do not carry the interpretation through, and he comes over as no more than a prat in a duffel coat.
Lan seems worried about the over-familiarity of the famous speeches, and “All the world’s a stage…”, for instance, is virtually thrown away with a knowing wink, and is later even sent up by Sean Hughes’ Touchstone, rather than explored in a fresh context. Hughes can’t perform the inhuman feat of making Touchstone funny to a modern audience, but he’s impishly attractive and lively, and does what he can to engage the audience through stage charm.
In the opening scenes of Oliver’s orchard and the grounds of the usurper Frederick’s court, there is an only partially successful attempt at film noir. The Duke (Nigel Richards) wearing the same false grin as in his later incarnation of Hymen, suggests brutality but is not sufficiently authoritative. Andrew Woodall’s cold and seedy Oliver misses the opportunity to capitalise on the sinister atmosphere of a thriller. In the casting of Dominic West, the production has that rare thing, a butch and rugged Orlando, and the wrestling match is convincingly physically violent under the fight direction of Alison de Burgh. It’s nicely appropriate to one of Shakespeare’s gender-ambivalent comedies that the fights are arranged by Britain’s first female fight director.
Against this over-stylised, sometimes precious, occasionally ridiculous, background, the principals have to establish themselves. A new Rosalind is an eagerly awaited event in English theatre. Helen McCrory is far too talented, vivid and technically accomplished an actress not to have moments of illuminating triumph. She brings flashes of believable angst — you believe she’s been hurt by the briers of this working-day world — and wit — she’s blazingly forthright with Phoebe who is “not for all markets”. She amusingly experiments with lowering Ganymede’s voice to try and make him a more convincing boy. But sometimes, in a gimmicky production, Rosalind has to strain to let her sincerity be felt.
We all have preconceptions of how we want our Shakespearean heroines. This Rosalind is occasionally strident and uncritically self-indulgent of her mood swings, which are lovingly tolerated by the far more prosaic and sensible Celia of Sienna Miller, but make her sadly unsympathetic to some of the rest of us. McCrory is a mature and soignée young woman at the opening, but given to girlie outbreaks when she sees the man she loves — amusing when hinted at, irritating when exaggerated.
Celia’s an easier part to be gimmicky in. Sienna Miller is disconcertingly jerky in movement and speech to begin with, pulling faces at the café table to get laughs, but in the informal surroundings of the Forest, she has telling moments of ingenuous comedy as a goofy girl, more inclined to go to sleep than run around talking extravagantly about love and life. She constantly reacts to what she witnesses — alternately amused or worried that her cousin is going too far — and she sounds genuinely indignant that Rosalind has “misused our sex”. One of the production’s distinctions is how it poignantly traces the swift and silent falling in love of Celia and Oliver as they dance together to the music of the exiled court, a neat way of using one of the extended musical interludes to develop the plot.
Post-feminist Rosalinds seem anxious to underplay their satiric wit and emphasise the girlishly ingratiating side of their sex, as if it is in some way threatened by the adoption of a male disguise. This is odd when Rosalind evidently enjoys the power she has in relation to other people when she’s a man (plain-speaking with another woman, Phoebe, and the sort of intimate talk with a man she fancies, Orlando, that a woman can usually only have with a gay friend). She relishes the irony of her situation: she’s not Viola, appalled by the effects of her disguise. The costume design celebrates Rosalind’s restoration of femininity at the end, dressing McCrory in a delicious white and red confection of the New Look, showing off bare shoulders, a tiny waist, and elegant high heels.
Dominic West manages to maintain masculine credibility when he is made to deliver one of Orlando’s love letters to fey musical accompaniment. The play’s fun with sexual contradictions is plainly demonstrated. This apparently straight man is also clearly enraptured by the closeness of Ganymede’s presence and can barely stop himself caressing the boy.
The use of music and the shape-changing Forest, might suggest a tender lyricism, but it is not present. There’s a crossness crept into Arden. Orlando is very cross at the beginning, understandably perhaps as he’s under threat of fratricidal murder, but it’s not attractive. Most distressingly, Rosalind is cross. It takes a lot to put her back into her “holiday humour”. Maybe this is not surprising in a production where the only glimpse of a greenwood tree is right at the end.
C J Sheridan © 2005
Originally published on R&V on 23-06-05
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