Antony And Cleopatra – September 2012

7/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janet Suzman

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 7th September 2012

This was the very first performance of this revived production. Kim Cattrall played Cleopatra before in substantially the same production in Liverpool back in 2010, with the same director, designer and many of the same cast but with a different leading actor (Jeffrey Kissoon took the role in 2010). The Liverpool Playhouse doesn’t have the thrust stage of the Festival Theatre, of course, so changes must have been made to the design, and it’s impossible to say how much the intervening two years has added to the cast’s understanding, so I’ll just concentrate on our experience of this production.

First, the set: from the publicity photos on the Liverpool Playhouse website, I would guess that the basic design is largely unchanged, though presumably the balcony comes further forward than before. A wall of bricks at the back, with a few window arches to break the monotony, had several tall screens in front of it, with the gaps creating doorways; towards the end a complete row of screens blocked the wall off altogether. In front of these was a curved balcony, supported by two pairs of metal pillars down which ran ladders. The open metalwork had simple lines, with a shiny black reflective surface. The floor was also shiny and black in a tiled effect, with a reddish circle in the middle. From the ceiling hung a number of eastern-style lamps; these were lowered at the start, to show we were in Egypt, and raised out of the way for the non-Egyptian scenes. A rectangular trapdoor was well used throughout the performance, particularly to bring up furniture for the various locations and also to remove Enobarbus’s body. The lighting changed significantly from scene to scene, creating a strong sense of location, and while the scene changes were sometimes a little on the slow side, on the whole they kept the pace up reasonably well; this is one aspect that will undoubtedly improve with practice.

The casting was interesting. The Egyptians were almost all played by black actors, with one Indian actor playing the soothsayer and Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra. I reckoned this was to show that the Ptolemies were actually Greek rulers, not native Egyptians. The Romans were all white, and for once this non-colour blind casting was very appropriate. Apart from Jeffrey Kissoon playing Antony, it looks as if this aspect of the casting was similar to last time, and while the style of the costumes was definitely the same, there were individual changes particularly to Cleopatra’s clothes. Kim Cattrall was also playing Cleopatra as a blond this time around; she’d been a brunette before. The costumes were modern for the Romans, with skimpy outfits for the Egyptians and an Indian style get-up for the soothsayer.

The performance began in darkness, with a hissing, whispering sound that made me think of the play’s political contrivances as well as the asps in the final act. I could just make out a figure rising up on a plinth in the centre of the stage, while others were sneaking on round the sides. The music was quite dramatic and when the spotlights hit Cleopatra she was standing on a dais with her back to us, arms outstretched, wearing a golden robe. I have to admit that when the lights shafted down on her, I had a momentary sense that I was watching a horror movie rather than a Shakespeare play, and this effect was strengthened a minute later when she turned around and I could see she was wearing a moulded golden mask – creepy! But I got over it pretty quickly, especially when Demetrius and Philo began their conversation up on the balcony while the rest of the cast stayed frozen down below.

Or almost frozen; during their dialogue Cleopatra turned round and her attendants began to remove her finery – presumably she’d been to a formal function and was now disrobing for some personal time. The final item was the face mask, and after she’d taken it off her dialogue with Antony could begin. She was kittenish, while he (played by Michael Pennington this time) was an old roué who was clearly infatuated with this beautiful younger woman. He capered about, clicking mini castanets, and generally behaving like an old fool, while she indulged and caressed him. Their delivery was clear and it’s nice to be able to hear the dialogue so well but the pace was a little slow, a fault which will again be sorted with a bit more practice.

After Antony and Cleopatra left, Demetrius and Philo finished the scene with their closing comments and departed. Down below, Cleopatra’s attendants had been clearing the stage and so were still present for the next scene with the soothsayer. An Indian actor had been cast in this role as with the 2010 version, and this soothsayer took on other jobs as well. For now, he simply looked briefly at each woman’s hand and then closed it up; there was little reaction to seeing their fates and he remained smooth, unruffled and courteous throughout.

Cleopatra arrived on the balcony with a black shawl over her head. She quickly left when Antony approached, and he heard the messengers on the main stage. Enobarbus’s comments about the women were again a little slow-paced, but we started to warm up with his comments about seeing Cleopatra die so often. That business done, Cleopatra returned and this time I could see how her line “I am sick and sullen” was an instruction to her servants so they could follow her lead in whatever playacting she had chosen. And just as well, as her tendency to collapse meant her servants had to be quick to hold her up. Mind you, she was soon on the floor, then up again, then back on the ground, and changed from sickness to anger in the blink of an eye. Antony was getting more and more frustrated that she wouldn’t listen to him, but when he did get his news out, including the information that Fulvia was dead, Cleopatra still turned it back on him, chiding him for not showing more sadness at the death of his wife. (Honestly, women!) He had almost left the stage before she called him back to say “something”, and her gentleness led to their reconciliation before his departure.

In Rome, Octavius wore a suit, while Lepidus was in formal military gear as I recall. Martin Hutson played Octavius last time as well, and his performance showed a lot of detail which was presumably based on the earlier run. His expressions were a little on the large side for this space and gave him a comical aspect, a bit like his Prince John in The Heart Of Robin Hood earlier this year, but his performance worked well in terms of the play as a whole. I think he was referring to papers in his hand for some of this speech; he certainly did so later on, after the whipped messenger had returned. His lines “this common body, like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide, to rot itself with motion”, a disparaging comment upon the fickle nature of the plebeian class in Rome, was addressed in the audience’s direction, heaven knows why. He left the stage before the end of the scene, and Lepidus had to call him back so he could plead to be kept in the intelligence loop.

Down came the lamps again and we were back in Egypt. Cleopatra was lying back on the couch with her feet in Charmian’s lap. Mardian and Iras were sitting by the front of the stage, and Mardian was occasionally strumming his lute (or similar) and singing explosively to make Iras jump, which she did, as well as giggling. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, and Cleopatra soon shut him up. I did wonder, given that she was a queen, why she didn’t have musicians who were more to her liking, but who knows what goes on in the corridors of power? And with the casting emphasising that Cleopatra was Greek rather than Egyptian, I suspected that she may have felt the need to have an Egyptian musician on the payroll to reassure her subjects that she was part of their culture, regardless of her own preferences. I’m not sure if it was Alexas who brought the news about Antony or another messenger, but the dialogue was still good and clear, so this time I heard the lines about the “twenty several messengers”  which made sense of Cleopatra’s following comments. Charmian was so annoying, going on about Julius Caesar instead of praising Mark Antony, and then Cleopatra left to write yet another letter.

Menecrates became Menas for this production, and he and Pompey stood on the balcony for their discussion. Varrius arrived below, and I think Pompey went down one of the ladders to meet him. It was the first time someone had done this, and there was a loud noise as the bar protecting the actors from falling off the balcony was rattled back to give Pompey access to the ladder. This was a minor distraction, and hopefully they’ll find some way to do this more quietly during the previews. I got the gist of this scene, but the dialogue wasn’t as clear as elsewhere.

For the next scene in Rome, a table and some chairs were set up in the middle of the stage. A tray with two carafes and some glasses was placed on the table and someone [Lepidus] poured drinks for the two main guests. A glass of water was placed on the left of the table for Octavius, and a glass containing a red liquid on the right, for Antony. Lepidus and Enobarbus were chatting while this was going on, and then Caesar and Antony arrived, each coming on from their side of the stage and bristling at the other. They moved to the table, and Lepidus, standing by the middle chair, tried to bring them together with his speech. They unbent enough to pronounce the basic civilities, but when Caesar said “sit”, Antony refused, saying “sit, sir”, and they had a mini confrontation over who would sit first. Octavius lost out, and tempers were soon rising again over the rebellion by Fulvia and Antony’s brother. Various matters were raised by Octavius and Antony dealt with them all, rebuffing Enobarbus when he made his comment about borrowing “one another’s love for the instant”. Agrippa’s suggestion of the marriage between Antony and Octavia didn’t seem to be instigated by Octavius this time, and when the question was put to Antony he took his time, draining the wine glass before giving his circumlocutory answer. Again, Lepidus was almost left behind when Octavius and Antony hurried off to Antony’s wedding.

Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra was well done, and then Octavius, Antony and Octavia entered for a very short scene. One more change to the Liverpool production; CFT had sprung for an extra actress to play Octavia, instead of Pompey having to double the part. The soothsayer was on the balcony, and gave Antony the warnings about Octavius, after which Antony made it clear that this was a political marriage only; he would be back with Cleopatra the first chance he got.

I think the next short scene with Agrippa, Maecenas and Lepidus was dropped, and we were back in Egypt again. Mardian’s music was still not to Cleopatra’s liking, hence her quick change of mind when he turned up with his instrument. The messenger arrived, and had the usual difficulty delivering his message, thanks to Cleopatra’s constant interruptions. When she said “there is gold”, she indicated Alexas who was holding a folder and just looked at her. When she offered more gold, he reacted by shaking his head and turning away – apparently the coffers were empty, or else he was upset that she was squandering her wealth on so many undeserving people; either way it was amusing. Her servants had to haul her off the poor messenger after she heard the bad news, but once she recovered herself she started to show some of the nobility of a queen.

The next scene had Pompey and his men on the balcony and the rest below.  Again, Pompey wasn’t entirely clear, but his emotional reaction to the memory of his “noble father” was. He turned and sobbed for a bit on the back railing, and I was surprised to find that Octavius’s line “take your time”, which sounded like a modern insertion, is actually in the text. Pompey came down a ladder during the dialogue – I think it was when he was spelling out the terms of the proposal – and was on the stage when he and Mark Antony shook hands.

After the leaders left to feast together, Menas and Enobarbus had their private chat which made it clear that Octavius and Antony would be at war before long. The others then returned – the servants’ dialogue was cut – and in all the activity I didn’t see Octavius cleaning the top of the barrel or box he was going to sit on. Fortunately, Steve spotted this action; it’s good to have two pairs of eyes at these times. With his suit and business-like manner, Octavius was well established as a prissy politician, very different from Antony, the grizzled veteran of many a battle. Their difference was emphasised in this scene, with Octavius very reluctant to drink, then not able to keep it down, then standing on the table to announce that he was leaving, then nearly falling off it as he made to leave. Antony helped him down, and it was all nicely done.

The rest of the feast was fine, with Lepidus definitely the worse for wear, and enough reaction from the others to indicate the humour of the crocodile description. Menas took Pompey to the front of the stage for their little chat, and the song may have used the lyrics in the text – I didn’t hear them well enough. I don’t remember the next scene with Ventidius explaining the danger of a lieutenant outperforming his general, although it may not have been clear what was going on; either way, Enobarbus and Agrippa were soon back on stage, making fun of Lepidus and his fawning over Antony and Octavius. Octavia’s leave-taking followed on, and when she broke off her line I thought at first she’d forgotten it, but she was just in character.

Back in Egypt, Cleopatra interrogated the messenger about Octavia. He did his best to please this time, but his guess at Octavia’s age (thirty) was received in stony silence. The rest of his comments made Cleopatra happy and she did a better job of twisting the information to her liking than Malcolm Tucker. Two short scenes showed the start of the conflict between Antony and Octavius; in the first Antony agreed to let Octavia go to Rome to attempt to broker a peace between the two leaders, while in the second Enobarbus and Eros discussed the latest state of play, informing us that Lepidus had been disposed of. These scenes felt bitty, because the changeovers took too long compared to the length of the scene, but they did get across the important information. Octavius and his men were on the balcony while they discussed Mark Antony’s behaviour in Egypt, but Octavius came down one of the ladders once his sister arrived and they took the interval after this scene.

When they restarted, Cleopatra came on dressed for war, arguing with Enobarbus over her participation in the imminent battle. Her armour seemed to consist of a golden breastplate and not much else, and since this piece of equipment was shaped like a naked female chest it was no surprise that Canidius, who arrived with Antony, spent most of the scene staring at the two round bulges in her armour.

Despite the protestations of his men, Antony was determined to fight at sea while Cleopatra seemed more like a bimbo than a queen, supporting her man with no regard for reasoned arguments. The next scenes were also short but as they alternated between the stage and the balcony they seemed to flow better. I also felt that the cast looked more confident in the second half, as if they’d started to get a feel for the space. We learned of Cleopatra’s flight from the battle and that Antony followed her, and then we saw the man himself, discouraged and disheartened, telling his men to take his treasure and leave. As they left, Cleopatra crept on from the back of the stage, wrapped in a black cloak, and again they were reconciled.

The soothsayer rather than the schoolteacher brought Antony’s message to Octavius, who was again on the balcony at this point. Seeing that the man was a foreigner, Octavius leant forward and spoke slowly and loudly, in a patronising manner. It was very funny, and when Octavius had finished with his instructions there was a pause and then Octavius, with prompting, did the anjali mudra (hands held together in front of the chest) to which the soothsayer responded and left. Octavius then sent Proculeius to seduce Cleopatra away from Antony.

In Alexandria, Enobarbus and Cleopatra were joined by Antony and the soothsayer to discuss Octavius’s offer. Thidias arrived to speak to Cleopatra, and she was paying close attention to everything he said while she calculated her best move in the situation. She was only too happy to agree to the idea that Antony had forced her into his bed, and Enobarbus quickly left to inform Antony what was going on. Antony’s rage led to Thidias being whipped by Antony’s men, while Cleopatra kept quiet, observing the scene during Antony’s temper tantrum. She soon had him eating out of her hand again, and when she mentioned “it is my birthday”, Antony clapped his hand to his mouth, the traditional gesture for a man who’s forgotten a woman’s birthday.

Octavius was again reading a letter for the next scene and referred to it as he listed Antony’s insults. I did think he could have gestured elsewhere for the whipped messenger to suggest he’d actually spoken to the man, but it didn’t make much difference overall. Antony’s dismal speech to his servants was fine, and then the soldiers entered both on the balcony and below for the strange music scene, often dropped. Cleopatra helped to put on Antony’s armour next, and managed to buckle on a whole kneepad without breaking a nail.

Again the scenes came thick and fast. Antony learned that Enobarbus had left and sent him his treasure, while Octavius ordered that Antony’s former troops be put in the front of the battle, and as he spoke these lines he looked directly at Enobarbus who had already come on stage and stood below him. Then Enobarbus was told that his treasure had arrived and headed off to die. Antony and his men came on stage, rejoicing at their victory, and when the soldier he commended to Cleopatra was given her hand, he tried to sneak a second kiss but Antony snatched her hand away first – very possessive, this chap.

Enobarbus’s death scene was staged with a shallow sunken area in which he laid himself before dying, so his body was easily removed under cover of darkness. Even shorter scenes now, and the actors hardly had time to leave the stage between them, so dramatic changes of lighting helped to make each scene different. The battle lost, Antony was in a rage (again) with Cleopatra, and she slunk off while he called for Eros.

The road to the monument was along the balcony, with Mardian being sent to give the message of Cleopatra’s death, and when Antony heard this news he went for the assisted suicide option. Unfortunately, while he stood, bracing himself against one of the balcony’s pillars, Eros demonstrated the unassisted suicide option and stabbed himself in the guts. Call me picky if you like, but I don’t believe in the stab-yourself-in-the-guts-and-die-instantly trick. After all, Antony botched his own suicide and lived for quite a lot of lines afterwards, so why shouldn’t Eros?

However, to get back to the play, Antony did his best by jamming the knife into one of the joints of the pillar and then ran onto it, but he wasn’t successful and lay on the ground, groaning. His soldiers refused to finish him off and one of them took Antony’s knife to Octavius – not the actual killing weapon as far as I could see. The next messenger from Cleopatra arrived too late, as usual, and they didn’t seem to make much of this moment which can be quite funny.

When we first saw the set, we reckoned we knew where the monument scene would be played, but as it turned out we were completely wrong. There were two men on the balcony before the scene started; they did some work with wires and hooks and opened up a trapdoor in the balcony floor, but something must have gone wrong because the hooks were taken up again, the trapdoor closed and the men left the balcony, while Cleopatra and her staff came on to the stage from the right hand side. There was just enough of a climb to explain the need to “draw him hither” and they put Antony on a mattress which had been placed on the stage trapdoor. We’re assuming there was some sort of technical hitch tonight, and perhaps we saw Plan B in action; we’ll be interested to see what happens in this scene next time.

They played out the scene on the stage, with Antony held in Cleopatra’s arms till he died. She then said her lines and stayed kneeling beside his body, head down, arms across her chest, unmoving. Her women were concerned that she had died too, but she was just overwhelmed by her loss.

Up on the balcony Octavius was still micro-managing everything, and when Antony’s man turned up with the knife, Octavius was terrified and lunged to the far side of the balcony to stay away from him. Once Octavius realised that Antony was dead he came down the ladder and took the knife himself, wiping it clean before the end of the scene as he invited the soldier who had brought it to go to his tent to hear his version of history. The messenger from Cleopatra was Alexas, and Octavius sent Proculeius to secure Cleopatra for his triumphal march through Rome.

In her Monument, Cleopatra had indeed learned some lessons about the transitory nature of power. Dressed in simple black, she was cool towards Proculeius, though she bowed low to him to demonstrate her submission to Caesar; her women followed her lead. When the Roman guards rushed on, they roughed up the women and stabbed Mardian. When Dolabella arrived, he dismissed Proculeius and the guards and they left, taking Mardian’s dead body with them. Dolabella was much more sympathetic, and Cleopatra soon knew the truth about Octavius’s intentions.

When Octavius himself was announced, Cleopatra and her women all bowed down in a semi-circle with their veils over their faces, making it impossible to tell who was who. Octavius asked “which is the queen of Egypt?”, and Dolabella walked over to stand beside Cleopatra. They included the treasury section, with Alexas as the treasurer, and he handed Octavius a folder which presumably contained the details of Cleopatra’s wealth, or at least those parts she was willing to admit to. Octavius possibly handed the folder back to Cleopatra when he told her “still be’t yours”, but she wasn’t fooled by his charm for all her bowing and sweetness towards him.

The asp basket was brought on by a cheerful chap who just wouldn’t stop talking. He clearly didn’t realise who he was talking to until the end of his dialogue, when he was leaving. Charmian and Iras returned with Cleopatra’s throne, and when he saw this he registered shocked surprise and then hurried off the stage.

Charmian and Iras dressed Cleopatra in the same golden robe she wore at the start, plus her crown – no face mask this time as she needs to speak dialogue. After Iras collapsed, Cleopatra sat on her throne and Charmian placed the basket in front of her. She took the first asp and placed it on her breast, and when she took the second snake she placed it on the other side of her breast so that when she died she was sitting there with her arms folded over her chest. Charmian had to grab the basket quickly after the guard came in, but managed to get the asp out in time, and then Octavius finished the play. I wasn’t sure if the look he gave Dolabella meant that he suspected his involvement in Cleopatra’s death.

There’s more to come with this production, and I’m confident it will be much stronger when we see it again in a couple of weeks’ time. The pace will undoubtedly be quicker, and the cast will be used to the space and be judging their performances better. Tonight they were simply too big, presumably to make sure they carried to the back of the auditorium, but as we found from The Deep Blue Sea last year it’s amazing how well small details can travel in this theatre, and with a play like this which combines the epic and the intimate, this may be just about the perfect space to perform it in. But it was a good start and an enjoyable performance even at this early stage.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

As You Like It – September 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by James Dacre

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Thursday 6th September 2012

I was reminded that this was a touring production as soon as I saw the set. A low wooden platform sat between the stage pillars, with a wooden crate centre front and a much larger box construction behind it, just in front of the balcony. I could see a door on the near side of this homemade portakabin (with the Shakespeare’s Globe logo on it) and I assumed there would be a door on the other side; I couldn’t see any obvious exits/entrances at the front. Four tall ladders poked up above this box, one on each side and two at the back, and there was some luggage sitting on the top of it – a trunk and a hatbox – which suggested the girls’ flight into the forest. A sturdy wooden post anchored each corner of the front section of the platform, and I could also see an old camera on a tripod on the far side of the stage, complete with its black cloth for the photographer’s head. There was also a small brass bowl just behind the near pillar, a wicker hamper lurking on the far side of the stage, largely hidden by the far pillar, and I spotted another box or hamper secreted behind the portakabin on our side of the stage. My eyesight wasn’t up to identifying a small dark shape beside the far front post – no doubt that will become clear in time. Nothing else was visible at this point, and the stage proper had been cut back to its usual size, with steps at each side and two lots at the front about level with the corners of the platform. The costumes were all late Victorian.

The black thing turned out to be the flash gun for the camera, but that came later. To begin with, most of the actors in the cast came out of the box from the portakabin’s side doors, apart from a few who appeared through trapdoors in the roof. They played assorted instruments, not the most harmonious sound, and sang a made-up song to introduce the performance. Touchstone also did a short speech as part of this, and even took a quick turn around the pit during it, which helped to get the audience involved. I didn’t catch all of the words, but there was a fair bit of laughter, so not a bad start.

During the opening song, the cast had brought on the wooden box from behind the portakabin, and I could see it contained apples. At the end of the song, the non-openers stood on stage holding an apple in each hand and gradually raised them up, presumably to represent the orchard setting of the first scene. As Orlando and Adam got the scene underway, the others placed the apples on the ground and left the stage, which allowed Orlando to pick up the fruit and put it in the box during the scene.

For once the dialogue was wonderfully clear and I heard every syllable of these scenes; since the portakabin blocked half the stage and the pillars just about did for the rest, hearing this play was our only hope. Old Adam was doubled with Touchstone, so not only was he wearing a hat and brown coat, he also had tremors in his hands to indicate how old he was. Orlando introduced us to his own situation, and when his brother approached from the pit they had a mighty tussle (behind the pillars) which Orlando definitely won – I glimpsed Oliver kneeling down at one point. Charles the wrestler also approached from the audience but he took a lot longer to reach the stage, using the pretty route to deliver most of his ‘news’. Oliver gave him a banknote as inducement to kill Orlando for him, and I noticed he kissed the rest of the notes before he put them back – mercenary or what? Charles took the hint, and I reflected that his career was almost over, given his promise to quit the ring if Orlando walked away from their fight. Oliver’s description of his hatred for his brother was nicely done and I thought it was worthy of some laughs; not so the audience.

Rosalind and Celia used the camera at the start of their scene. Rosalind was carrying a lily and was handed some grapes to hold in an aesthetic pose while Celia placed the camera on the platform to take her picture. Their conversation was also very clear and for once Celia not only came across as Rosalind’s equal, she was even stronger than her in this scene. When Rosalind suggested they fall in love, she sat Celia down on her knee (I assume she was kneeling herself to do this). Touchstone’s arrival changed the tone, and I could see that the women were keen to make use of his wit to cheer themselves up. Le Beau delivered his message, and then the stage was set up for the wrestling match by threading a rope through the eyes on the corner posts and drawing it tight. The women disappeared off and reappeared on the other side of the stage, Rosalind with a hat and Celia with an umbrella, presumably formal wear for ladies of rank attending wrestling matches. But they were all over the stage during this scene, and when Orlando arrived and stripped off his shirt, they were all over the stage in more ways than one. This Celia was definitely attracted to Orlando as much as Rosalind was, and it was touch and go as to which one would get to him first.

The wrestling took a while, and Orlando was definitely getting the worse of it for a long time. He was banged against the portakabin and fell over the rope onto the front of the stage but still managed to recover and get back into the fight, delivering some nasty blows to Charles and even kicking him in a sensitive spot when Charles was finally on the floor himself. Despite his wrestler being beaten,the Duke was very pleased until he found out who Orlando was. The Duke had taken a bag, which presumably contained the prize money, and was about to hand it over when Orlando announced his parentage. The Duke froze, kept the money and left soon afterwards, clearly angry.

Orlando then had his two ‘conversations’ with Celia and Rosalind. Celia was the first to congratulate him, coming into the wrestling ring to do so, but Rosalind swept past her and gave her chain to Orlando, much to Celia’s annoyance. Orlando, of course, was mute. With Celia beginning to accept that Orlando wasn’t for her, she and Rosalind left the stage by the front steps, getting almost to the exit before Rosalind came out with her pathetic excuse that he’d called them back. It was very funny, and with a courtier watching this going on, I was aware that these actions prompted the Duke’s banishment of Rosalind because he didn’t want his daughter to be led astray by people he regarded as his enemies.

Rosalind’s passion for Orlando was well expressed in the next scene, followed by the Duke’s anger and her banishment. The latter part of the scene was mostly hidden but they got the story across well enough, and again the planning of their flight showed Celia to be at least as strong a character as her cousin. When choosing their noms de fuite, Celia took a little time to get out the “alien” part, then hastily added the “a” to make it sound more plausible, which we found very funny. Orlando was likewise soon on his travels, with the faithful Adam as his companion; I think this happened before the first scene in the forest, but I’m not sure.

Moving on to the first forest scene, where the banished Duke could have been his usurping brother’s twin, we were shown Jacques (played by Emma Pallant as a female character) up on the roof of the portakabin, where she acted out her part while the First Lord (no idea who was doing this bit) recounted the story of Jacques’ musings on the injured deer. Emma spoke Jacques’ own lines for this, so we were familiar with who was playing the part before her proper entrance – a good move with such unusual casting.

I think this may have been the first place where an actor changed character on stage, with Duke Senior turning into Duke Frederick before our very eyes and finding out about his daughter’s flight. The text has the Orlando/Adam scene here – maybe, maybe not – then Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone turned up in Arden and the fun really began.

They were carrying suitcases and Touchstone was also carrying Celia on his back. Ganymede was in workman’s clothes, with a short, waistcoat, rough trousers and a cap, while Celia wore a plain frock. Touchstone was still in his lime green suit, a sight for sore eyes (to make them sore, that is). Corin and Silvius entered by the side stairs and sat chatting in the front corner of the stage on our side; to hide from them the three new arrivals crouched behind the suitcases. Silvius was wonderfully silly, while Touchstone’s comments on the folly of lovers came across very clearly.

After Corin took them away to the sheepcote, I think the next scene started with Amiens singing Under The Greenwood Tree; I forget the style, but it was very pleasant. While this was going on, Jacques sat front right on the steps, irritated by the noise and studying or writing in her notebook. Her discourse with Amiens was nicely brittle, and she gave the impression of being an unhappy woman who had turned cynical rather than being a cynic by nature. The short scene with Orlando bringing Adam into the forest may have come before the singing, but either way Adam was left propped up against the ladder on the portakabin roof while Orlando went to find food. I forgot to mention that, at an earlier point, some panels on the front of the portakabin were swung back to reveal a forest scene, with double doors for access to the stage.

Duke Senior returned to the stage which now had a picnic laid out on a blanket. Jacques also returned, all excited at having met a fool in the forest, and her description of the encounter was very well done. Orlando came through the doors, as I recall, and threatened them with his knife. He grabbed Jacques and held the knife to her throat, which made him seem much more ruthless than usual. He was soon persuaded by the Duke to soften his approach, and after he left to get Adam, Jacques gave us the famous “seven ages of man” speech. It was strange hearing it from a woman, and it gave a more observational flavour to the familiar lines. With Orlando’s parentage acknowledged, the scene was over and they took the interval, with Jacques hanging a sign to that effect on the portakabin door handles.

Act 3 scene 1 may have started the second half, or it may have happened earlier or later; I’m usually happy for directors to change the order of events, but it does give me problems writing these notes at times. The stage had been well papered during the interval, with sheets on the pillars, the posts, the doors, just about everywhere you could stick a sheet of paper. Touchstone sat on the portakabin roof for the first part of his chat with Corin, but came down during it to complete the scene. When Rosalind arrived, he made good use of the audience when composing the string of rhyming couplets; we joined in with “Rosalind” each time. When it came to “must find love’s prick, and Rosalind”, he introduced a long pause while he fumbled in his trousers for a rather squashed rose, then continued the verse; some folk had kept the rhythm going and said “Rosalind” anyway, but we also joined in at the appropriate time.

Celia and Rosalind’s conversation went pretty well and then Orlando turned up with Jacques in tow. The two of them were awkward company and Jacques soon left, which allowed Rosalind to confront Orlando and begin the reverse wooing. I saw very little of the action of this scene, but the dialogue was clear, and there were some laughs which suggested the reactions and business were good fun. Celia sat on the bench during most of this.

Touchstone’s’ wooing of Audrey was next, and again the casting was unusual. John O’Mahony was fine as the fraternal Dukes, but wouldn’t have been most people’s first choice as Audrey. The beard would have put off many a casting director, but once we got over that, his pretty frock and feminine charms completely won us over. Sir Oliver Martext was as drunk as a skunk and played very little part in the proceedings, staggering off the stage some moments after the rest of the wedding party had left.

Rosalind was very put out that Orlando had missed his appointment, and Celia was doing her best to convince her cousin that Orlando was indeed faithless. The encounter with Silvius and Phebe was good fun. Emma Pallant was doubling Phebe with Jacques, and she played both parts very strongly. At the end of that scene she changed into Jacques on stage and continued immediately to talk with Ganymede. I had the impression that Jacques was also attracted to this woman-as-man, and that her unhappiness at Orlando’s arrival was partly because he interrupted their conversation.

The second wooing between the two of them went well enough, with Rosalind being very changeable. They may have had a song in the interlude and then Silvius brought the letter from Phebe. After revealing the contents of the letter, Rosalind sent him packing just as Oliver arrived with the bloody napkin. I couldn’t see all of Celia’s behaviour at this point, but she was clearly taken with this new arrival. When Rosalind fainted, Oliver definitely found out that she was a woman, and Steve reckoned he also realised that she had to be Rosalind (he does know about the flight of Rosalind and Celia after all). I wasn’t sure about that part, and I also wasn’t sure how much Orlando knew later on, but that might have been clearer from a better angle than ours.

With a cast limited in number, William was unavailable for comment in this production, so they went straight into Orlando and Oliver’s conversation followed by Rosalind’s arrival. The quartet with Silvius and Phebe was nicely done, then they skipped the following song and continued with the Duke’s entrance for the wedding scene. Jacques had to miss the wedding, as Phebe was present in her white dress; in fact all the brides wore a similar dress – probably not much choice in the forest’s one and only bridal shop. Audrey was also present, as a life-size cardboard cut-out, and we really enjoyed her performance despite the lack of action. Touchstone carried her on and left on the right corner of the stage, then came across later to tell her to “bear your body more seeming, Audrey”, which was very funny. He also took Audrey off at the end to clear the stage for the dance.

With Jacques missing they dropped Touchstone’s quarrel routine (shame) so in no time at all Rosalind was back in her wedding dress, ready to marry the man she loves. The news about Duke Frederick’s conversion arrived, and with some slipping of coats on and off Jacques finished her part in the play, leaving the rest, including Phebe, to end the show with a happy dance. No epilogue.

It was a lively performance, with some interesting choices and a strong and clear story. There was also a good deal of humour, including some from the invasion of the pigeons! So many of them were landing on the stage that Touchstone had to chase them off before continuing with his lines. At some point he also encouraged us to keep clapping after some business or other; then he told us to stop, then to keep it up – it was all good fun. I would have liked to have seen more of the action, but we did get a good idea of the production despite our side-on view, and I thought the entire cast did an excellent job. There was more music than I’ve commented on, sometimes discordant, sometimes pleasant, and the cast’s interaction with the audience was very good. Their touring venues have been informal, from the looks of them, so presumably they’ve had plenty of practice.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me