By William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Fentiman
Company: RSC Understudies
Venue: Courtyard Theatre
Date: Tuesday 9th June 2009
This was a good performance of an interesting production with some nice touches. The standard was still good, although it’s play that needs sparkle and it’s asking too much of the understudies to produce that level of performance first time out. The introduction by Michael Fentiman warned us that Christine Entwisle would play Phoebe for the final scene as Debbie Korley was doubling both Phoebe and Audrey, making her a potential bigamist without this extra help. As there was a dance at the end, it would indeed have been difficult to get away with just one woman playing two parts.
The set was interesting as well and reminded me of a number of things, particularly the DASH Arts Dream. The back wall was made up of lots of squares of what looked like patterned paper, or possibly wood. The squares looked like they would easily come out or open up to make doors or windows, and it reminded me of the paper-covered back wall in the aforementioned Dream. There were double doors in the centre of the wall and a couple of larger panels above. The floor was likewise made up of patterned squares, all in a light colour. The lighting on this stark set was equally decisive; a stream of white light poured across the stage on the diagonal, matched by another diagonal later on; there were a few gloomy scenes to contend with, but mostly it was fairly bright all over with no specific highlights.
The first glimpse of the wintery forest came with the exiled Duke and his lords appearing through trapdoors. Then Celia, Rosalind and Touchstone arrived at Arden and the plants began to take over. Touchstone was covered in undergrowth (though in his case it’s more like overgrowth) and during the intermission the doors and panels started to come off the back wall, with trees starting to show through. I liked the split personality of the set in the second half; they never quite got rid of the back wall but the bundle of overgrowth stayed on stage throughout. The forest was also liberally peppered with Orlando’s verses. Large bits of cardboard appeared all over the place, hanging from the roof, stuck on the side walls and around the first balcony, stuffed into the foliage behind the wall and just about everywhere you looked there was at least a letter or word. Very effective.
The individual performances were good, with James Howard’s Jacques being excellent. His first entrance was solo, carrying a guitar and singing “Under The Greenwood Tree”, a song normally sung by Amiens. Instead of Jacques asking the absent Amiens for more, he asked us if we wanted more, so some of us obliged him by calling out. He carried on, and finally took lots of bows. At first we applauded, then we laughed, then we applauded again, then we laughed again, then the other lords came on and we laughed at his reaction. Now he could play his musical trick on the other lords and that was good fun too, with entertaining reactions from the lords who sprang apart as if bitten. He also managed a good version of the seven ages of man speech which is normally very boring – he managed to get a couple of laughs – and his character came across very clearly throughout. I was aware of his melancholy, which wasn’t unfunny this time, and how he and Touchstone were so similar; this forest wasn’t big enough for the both of them. One minor weakness – Clarence Smith as Charles, the Duke’s wrestler, was less good in his delivery of the lines. He didn’t project quite enough so that lines said facing away from us tended to get lost, and his diction wasn’t quite as clear as the others, but it wasn’t a bad performance – I’m sure he’ll get better with practice – and he managed the wrestling scene very well which can’t be easy with so little rehearsal.
Staging. During Orlando and Oliver’s first conversation, or slanging match if you prefer, Orlando showed his talents as a wrestler by pinning his brother to the ground. I noticed how well the conversation between Oliver and Charles gave the audience all the background information it needs about the situation at court. When the court arrived it was with a formal dance, more Spanish than French to my mind, with lots of foot stamping. The Duke and his followers swept out, leaving a sad Rosalind to be cheered up by her cousin. Their dialogue came across clearly, as did the banter with Touchstone. He arrived before the girls had finished their bit and took the opportunity to down a bottle of something, presumably alcoholic, which he’d hidden down the front of his trousers. But before he could down the second bottle, similarly secreted, he had to speak to the girls and then it was too late; they kept him talking so long the wrestling was about to start before he could wet his whistle again.
Rosalind was surprisingly keen to see the bone-breaking wrestling match, though her change into love-struck woman was beautifully done, as was Orlando’s smitten-ness, resulting in a lack of dialogue. The wrestling itself involved a lot of banging heads against the back wall, and there was a suitable amount of blood on each contestant’s head by the end. The court was spread around the auditorium with Rosalind and Celia just along from us. I noticed that the court applauded Charles’s successes, while the girls clapped and cheered for Orlando. This may have been what tipped the Duke into banishing Rosalind, not liking the way she influenced his own daughter. The Duke is certainly shown as full-blown tyrant in this production.
The girls were soon planning their trip to Arden. The line referring to Rosalind’s height was inappropriate with this casting but she tackled it head on and we all took it in our stride, accepting the unusual circumstances. They leave by different exits for once, to carry out the various aspects of their plan.
Next was the arrival of Duke senior and his men in the forest. The first lord and Amiens were played by the same actor so he had to indicate someone else when he mentioned Amiens, but it all worked very well. Immediately we were back with the usurping Duke, and his courtiers were informing him about his daughter’s flight. Hisperia, Celia’s woman, was brought on too, but as she was standing right beside us I couldn’t see her face until she turned to leave when it became apparent that her cooperation with the investigation had been obtained by means of violence – her face was cut and bruised. I got a bad feeling about this Duke.
When Orlando returned home Adam warned him to go away, as his brother wasn’t happy with the news of Orlando’s success. When Orlando rushed over to embrace Adam, he kicked the money box into the audience, which caused some laughter. It was handed back readily enough and didn’t hold up the performance at all. I was very aware, as Adam was asking Orlando to take him along, that people in service didn’t have a lot of options in those days. Adam might have saved some money, but he was probably better off with an employer than on his own. And I’m delighted to say that although Adam wasn’t seen again after the forest feast this production didn’t actually kill him off for once. A gentle retirement, then. How fitting.
Next came the main event – the girls and Touchstone arriving in Arden. Celia, poor lass, was so leg-weary she was actually in a trolley being pulled by Rosalind. And she was covered by a blanket. So her complaints about being too tired to go on seemed just a tad selfish and petulant. Rosalind, for her disguise as Ganymede, had a pencil moustache, a hat over her tied-up hair and ordinary trousers, shirt and jacket. Touchstone, apart from the strands of foliage he manages to get caught up in, was still in his fool’s clothes which in his case appeared to be a set of restraining clothes – a pair of trousers with straps topped with the remains of a straitjacket (one of the arms came off later on when he scrambled his way out of the foliage). When Corin and Silvius turned up, they hid; Celia snuggled under her blanket, Rosalind ducked behind the trolley, and Touchstone nipped off to the side of the stage.
Silvius was playing an instrument and singing his love song to Phoebe as he came on, a common practice in this production. The instrument appeared to be a mandolele (a cross between a mandolin and a ukulele) with ten strings. (I don’t know what it’s called in real life.) After Silvius left, Celia, ever practical, was up from her comfy bed in a trice to suggest they ask the remaining shepherd for food.
Next we had Jacques giving us his song, and then Orlando and Adam arriving in the forest with Orlando helping Adam off the stage until he could get him some food. The Duke turned up again with his men who prepared dinner – meat kebabs over an open flame in one of the trapdoor fire pits – yum. Orlando grabbed one of the lords to persuade them to part with some of their food but was soon charmed into behaving nicely, although there was a lord pointing a gun at him behind his back. There were a lot of guns in this production – everyone following the exiled Duke in the forest had one – but fortunately no need to fire any of them. Jacques delivered the speech about meeting the fool very well, with some nice pauses during the time sequence which made it funnier, as he waited for someone to tell him what the time would be an hour after ten o’clock. Amiens’ song was dropped; instead they just had the Duke leaving the stage, Orlando seeing that Adam was well looked after then following the Duke, and the two of them returning to have a few short words before they all left the stage.
The nasty Duke then confronted Oliver about his missing brother in a very short scene, but it was enough to get across his tyranny, and then we had Orlando in the forest, strumming his guitar and singing some of his poetry written in praise of Rosalind. Trust me, they sounded better sung than said. Plus he has a nice voice. We then got the opening lines of Act 3 Scene 2, with Orlando running off past us after “and unexpressive she”. Oliver then appeared at the centre back of the stage, looking around, presumably for his troublesome brother, and then he headed off in the other direction. Interval.
The stage crew then took some time setting up the stage for the second half, what with sweeping away bits of paper, tidying up the foliage nest that Touchstone had deposited on the far side of the stage, demolishing the back wall and plastering the whole stage with poetry snippets (see above). They may have lacked a lot of the comforts of life in Arden forest, but good housekeeping wasn’t one of them. Forest floor swept and washed on a regular basis. One of the trapdoors had a block set up in front of it, over on our side of the stage towards the back. When all the work was done, Amiens?/lord?/Corin? (that’s the trouble with all this doubling) popped in there and began to skin a rabbit. For real. A real rabbit. A real, dead rabbit. And he was really skinning it. EEUUUGGGHHHHH!!!!! At least that’s what Touchstone thought, as he stood or sat on the other side of the stage, preparing to address the shepherd but not quite able to as first one leg, then another, then the whole body was pulled out of the skin (after the head had been chopped off). I didn’t find it all that grisly (she lied) but Touchstone wasn’t the only person who was finding it tough going judging by the noises coming from the audience. Once fully skinned, the rabbit was put in the bucket and was being carried off stage before Corin noticed Touchstone and started the next bit of Act 3 Scene 2. [Found out in 2011 that the rabbit skinning had to be dropped for New York, as there was a huge outcry from animal lovers over there.]
This scene took us through both Rosalind and Celia reading out some of the poetry and into their private discussion of the verse-writer. This time, I was aware that Rosalind was reading these verses as Ganymede, but hearing them as herself. When it comes to the revelation about who has written the verses I always find Rosalind completely obtuse at this point, despite her quick wits. I can only suppose she’s used to people writing fancy verse in her praise, and doesn’t expect to see Orlando again anytime soon which is why she takes so long to absorb Celia’s information. Anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen Rosalind, describing her disguise, drop her trousers and take the padding out of her crotch. Very effective, very funny, and it showed an astonishing attention to detail. When Orlando and Jacques turned up, she and Celia snuck off stage and round the back where they could watch what went on. Orlando had the guitar which he handed to Jacques, who took it off with him when he went.
There was a moment when Orlando first saw Ganymede that told us he saw the similarity to Rosalind immediately. But then he ‘realised’ he was talking to a boy and he snapped out of his romantic dream in a chappish sort of way, becoming brisk and manly, as you do. Their banter was also pretty brisk which got us through the rest of the scene quite quickly. To give them a break, Touchstone brought on Audrey to woo and wed her. Sir Oliver Martext arrived carrying a flaming cross (don’t ask me why). Jacques dissuaded Touchstone from marrying badly in the forest, so off they went and we were back to Rosalind and Celia wondering where Orlando has got to. To pass the time they headed off to see Silvius and Phoebe do their turn, with all the lovesick problems that brings. Phoebe was carrying a tray of fresh baked rolls which she dropped when she laid eyes on Ganymede. Silvius picked them all up again, having previously stolen one to keep next to his heart; he slipped it out of sight quickly when Phoebe looked at him.
Back at the shepherd’s house Rosalind and Celia entered with Jacques, who disappeared quickly once Orlando arrived. The wooing was good fun, and when it came to the end of the scene Orlando headed off to serve the Duke, Rosalind went off to sit somewhere quiet and Celia lay down on the stage to sleep for a while all on her own. The next scene is a puzzling one to us modern folk; Jacques leading the forest court in a stag-romp with lots of horns on view. Here it was done as a dream sequence, with Celia’s father coming on with his court in a reprise of the earlier dance entrance. Then the forest lords came on and the two groups formed into two lines. They danced around, there were lots of horns but no singing, and Celia joined in the dancing. After a short while she dropped back down onto the floor and the rest left, so that Rosalind could come back on and wake her up. Puzzling, but no worse than the original scene.
Next we got the letter from Phoebe declaring her love for Ganymede, followed by the arrival of Oliver to apologise on Orlando’s behalf for his non-appearance and to explain what’s happened. The connection between him and Celia was noticeable, though not so rampant as I’ve seen before. Next up were Audrey, Touchstone and William, with Touchstone making it clear to William that he’d better give up any plans he had to marry Audrey, as Touchstone has first dibs. (Actually William had first dibs, but who’s going to argue with a highly-trained court jester?)
When Orlando came on with Oliver he had his right arm in a sling, and when Oliver clasped him firmly before leaving to arrange his wedding, Orlando winced with pain. Even so, once the marriage arrangements are made amongst Orlando, Ganymede, Phoebe and Silvius, he got rid of the sling so he could put on a jacket for the marriage day. This removed the need for the scene with Touchstone and Audrey listening to a song. As Orlando and the exiled Duke discussed the situation it was clear that neither of them has realised who Ganymede is, despite both of them being strongly reminded of Rosalind when they saw the boy. (Where exactly did Rosalind get her quick wits from?) Touchstone dids his seven points of a quarrel speech, Audrey turned up looking completely different from before (it’s amazing what a wedding makeover can do for a woman) and then Hymen brought on Celia, accompanied by any spare cast members who were done up for a country-style wedding ceremony. Rosalind sneaked on to the stage at the front and all was finally revealed. With the news that the usurping Duke has gone off to be a hermit, and Jacques heading off to wait for the new/old Duke in his former cell, the stage was clear for merriment and dancing, after which they all left the stage except for Rosalind.
The epilogue is one of the best known bits, and rarely dropped. Here she said the opening lines and then sang a verse of The Parting Glass, a lovely old song and well performed but not as much fun as the regular epilogue. Still, we’d all enjoyed ourselves so much that there was rapturous applause, well deserved. Nothing more to add, looking forward to the regular version in August.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me