As You Like It – April 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 16th April 2013

My heart sank as we entered the auditorium and I realised they were playing the low frequency torture sounds again, my least favourite start to a performance. I managed to last out without throwing up. The set was a raised square platform within the main stage, with a few feet left free on three sides. It had a chequerboard pattern on it while the rest of the stage floor was blank. A pillar by the left walkway was echoed by a number of other pillars, all square, all grey, dotted around the rear half of the stage and there were dead leaves everywhere. Orlando and Adam came on before the start to sweep them up, making a tidy pile of half of them near the back right corner which they loaded into a wheelbarrow. Along the back of the stage were more grey wooden panels at different angles. Everything looked dark grey to begin with, including the clothes, but when the lights changed for the start, I could see that the pillars were brown.

Alex Waldmann as Orlando in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

Alex Waldmann as Orlando in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

While Adam removed the wheelbarrow and disposed of the leaves elsewhere, Orlando kept on sweeping, pausing for a while and sitting on the platform to ruminate on his position in life. His discussion with Adam began after Adam had brought the wheelbarrow back and positioned it by the pile of remaining leaves near the front of the stage, and to my relief the torture sounds stopped the moment the dialogue began.

I’m pleased to say the dialogue was clear and slower than the pace it’s usually delivered at these days. Mind you, Orlando did put in an extra pause so he wouldn’t be talking over someone’s mobile phone ringtone, but even so this meant that the situation with his older brother was clearly explained, and in general I was very aware of all of the family relationships tonight. He sat down to smoke a rollup, and was still smoking when Oliver arrived, carrying a cup and saucer. After a few lines, Oliver signalled to Adam to take the cup and saucer away, and he left the stage to the brothers, who were soon fighting. Oliver started it, slapping Orlando hard, but Orlando fought back and gave as good as he got. Excellent practice for the match against Charles, I reckoned.

Adam’s return broke up the fight, and Orlando seemed willing to believe his brother when Oliver said “You shall have some part of your will”. We soon found out, however, that Oliver was up to no good, and a splendid villain Luke Norris turned out to be, showing us a man tormented by the very existence of his brother but with no knowledge of the reason why. We were also treated to a superb little cameo by Daniel Easton as Dennis, a servant I don’t normally remember. He simpered a lot and had to be chased off by Oliver to call Charles to him; hardly any lines but nicely done.

I couldn’t get a handle on Charles’ accent. Mark Holgate, who played him, was clear, but the dialogue was strained as if he were trying to hide an accent or put on an unaccustomed one. I was aware that their opening lines were simply a way of telling the audience the situation and tonight it seemed a bit clunky to have Charles deliver ‘news’ that was obviously months out of date. Once they started on the wrestling match, though, it was a different story, and Oliver’s claims that he spoke “but brotherly of” Orlando were met with appropriate laughter from the audience.

The first court scene followed, and the initial staging was one of those symbolic efforts that don’t do a lot for me. Strip lights were lowered amongst the pillars at the back, and various men and women in evening dress gradually collected in formation under them, mostly to the left of the rear stage. Celia and Rosalind were part of the group, and with some music playing they all began to do some hand jive movements. After a short while, I could see that Rosalind was out of step with the others, and eventually she broke formation completely and staggered away from them, looking like she needed some air. Celia followed her soon after, and I think the rest of the cast carried on for a short while, though I don’t remember when they stopped or when they left the stage.

Both Celia (Joanna Horton) and Rosalind (Pippa Nixon) made it clear that these two characters had a very close relationship, and I loved it when Celia, trying to lift her cousin’s spirits, said “let me turn monster” and made a monster face, holding her hands like claws in front of her – very “grr, aargh”, though she didn’t make the sounds. Rosalind finally started laughing, and Celia repeated the movements, just to make sure. This meant the ladies were in good humour when Touchstone arrived to call Celia to her father. Touchstone (Nicolas Tennant) wore a bright red nose, orange leggings and a jacket. He also had a bowler hat, and when he placed the women on either side of him in the middle of the stage to explain about the knight and the mustard, they teased him by knocking his hat off.

Monsieur Le Beau became La Belle this time, a female courtier, and although Karen Archer delivered the lines well, she wasn’t the popinjay type that is usually presented for this part. For whatever reason, I didn’t hear the information about the father and his three sons clearly; perhaps there was too much emphasis on Touchstone and the girls larking around? To set up the stage for the wrestling, some attendants came on and removed sections of the central platform’s flooring to create a pit in the middle of the stage. From my angle in the third row it was hard to see, but I checked in the interval and it seemed to be filled with the same black cinder debris that was used in Hamlet; after the profligacy of some recent production designs, it’s nice to see they’re economising at last.

A table and chair were set at the back of the stage for Duke Frederick’s use. He came on less formally dressed than his court, with his white shirt hanging loose over black trousers, carrying a drink in one hand and a chicken leg in the other. He took several bites during this scene, and I felt he was being shown as a decadent ruler, keen to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. I’ve no idea why that was considered relevant, but it’s a valid enough choice. Orlando also wandered on and went to stand by the pillars at the back of the stage while the Duke explained the situation to his daughter and niece and asked them to intercede. When La Belle called Orlando over, he and Rosalind were soon drawn to each other. He was on the right of the pit, she and Celia on the left, with Celia staying mainly in the corner of the stage. As Orlando explained his rationale for taking part in the match – “if I be foiled” etc. – he moved round to the front of the pit, and Rosalind reciprocated, bringing them closer together. There was no sign of agitation from Celia during this, nor any sign that she was as keen on Orlando as Rosalind was.

Having set up a fairly standard wrestling arena, the next part was distinctly weird. For no reason I could fathom, Orlando, having taken off his top, was told to kneel in the centre of the pit and a blindfold was placed over his eyes. One of the attendants put some water on his head first, then the rest of the bucket was thrown over him, and Charles started having a go while Orlando was still blindfolded! What was that about?

Alex Waldmann as Orlando and Nicolas Tennant as Touchstone in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

Alex Waldmann as Orlando and Nicolas Tennant as Touchstone in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

No wonder Charles won all his matches if the odds were stacked against his opponents like that. Anyway, after taking a bit of a pounding – the fighting was more vicious than I care for, so I didn’t look at it much – Orlando finally turned the tables on Charles when the latter was celebrating his premature victory, and he ended up smashing Charles’ head against a pillar.

The Duke was seriously displeased with Orlando’s parentage and stormed off, but was back on stage briefly to witness Rosalind’s gift of her necklace to the young man. This enraged the Duke even more, and it was clear to us that this was the trigger for Rosalind’s banishment. Meanwhile, back at the wrestling pit, Orlando was struck dumb with a stupid grin plastered all over his face while Rosalind and Celia gave him their thanks. Celia was very ladylike about the whole thing, standing on the edge of the platform, whereas Rosalind, keen to show her deep appreciation of Orlando’s achievements, took off her high heels and stepped into the pit to stand next to him. That caused a reaction from Celia, and it was in the pit that Rosalind gave her necklace to Orlando. It also meant that she was shoeless when the girls left him alone there, and as they paused at the back of the stage for Rosalind to put her shoes back on, they were perfectly placed for Rosalind’s spurious “He calls us back”. Between these actions and Orlando’s total incomprehension of his muteness it was a very funny scene.

La Belle’s warning was very timely – we’d seen the danger signs ourselves – and it was clear from La Belle’s descriptions of the ladies and the Duke which side she favoured (and it wasn’t her current boss). Orlando was soon bounding off stage, but not before Rosalind came on again from the back and looked at him leaving, an overlap technique which happened several times in this production.  Rosalind’s line about her “child’s father” led to the full realisation of what this meant, and soon afterwards the Duke returned to banish Rosalind (and Celia, as it turned out). The rest of the scene was pretty standard but clear, and Celia’s choice of alias came across as a bit lame.

Off to the forest now for the first scene with Duke senior and his boys (and girls). For this part, the back left section of the stage revolved round while the wooden panels at the back folded away to leave the stage open to the brick wall. A few extra tree trunk were on view – silver birch – and although the revolve didn’t actually change the position of the pillars much, the whole stage had a more open feel. The Duke’s forest court turned out to be a 60s hippie commune, with much more colour than the main court and lots of musical instruments, songs and dancing.

I think there was another overlap between Rosalind leaving and her father arriving at this point, with a short look passing between them. The Duke’s lines were well delivered, and the first Lord did an entertaining impersonation of Jacques from which we deduced he had a strong Welsh accent. Everyone else, including the Duke, laughed heartily at the story of Jacques’ pithy comments; in general, this was a good aspect of this production, with lots of suitable reactions from the onlookers throughout.

With a quick change of lighting we were back in the court for the short scene where Duke Frederick discovered Celia’s flight. Hisperia was brought on stage and looked nervous, but no harm came to her at this time, although the Duke himself dragged her off stage for the Exeunt severally.

Adam had already done the packing when Orlando turned up at his brother’s house; he put a knapsack down behind one of the pillars before Orlando’s arrival, and after their conversation Adam handed the money box containing his life savings to Orlando and picked up the bag himself to carry. From the reaction of the audience I wasn’t the only one who felt that Orlando was getting off lightly here – why should he carry the small box and the elderly man carry the hefty bag? Definitely a black mark against the young man.

The order of the scenes may have been different at this point, so I’ll describe them as per my text. I don’t know if it was here or later, but at some point Corin appeared, he stood in the pit and drew a circle in the black stuff with his staff. Then he headed off without a word and the play continued as normal. Assuming Act 2 Scene 4 is next, Rosalind and Touchstone entered and stood looking around them. Rosalind was puffing a bit; she wore an elegant three piece man’s suit and with her short, slicked-back hair and flat chest she could pass for a young man at first glance. She’d put the bags she was carrying down for the moment; Touchstone didn’t seem to be carrying anything much. No sign of Celia.

Joanna Horton as Celia in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

Joanna Horton as Celia in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

Touchstone and Rosalind exchanged their lines, and as Rosalind got towards the end of her speech, she spoke a bit louder so that the “courage, good Aliena” would carry backstage. Celia appeared a few moments later, heavily laden, and clearly exhausted, wearing a scruffy combination of cast-offs from the look of her. She let the bags she was carrying drop, and then she dropped on top of them, lying flat on her back and getting a good laugh for her trouble. When Corin and Silvius arrived, the other two nipped back to where Celia was lying and hid there with her to watch the newcomers.

Corin and Silvius were pretty good – I think of Silvius as an early example of a stalker – and Michael Grady-Hall’s tortured delivery of “Phoebe, Phoebe, Phoebe” was just brilliant. Corin was also heading off stage while Touchstone and Rosalind were ruminating on the effects of love, until Celia asked them to speak to the shepherd about the availability of food. She’d roused herself a bit by this time, and when Corin came back the three of them were over by the right hand side of the stage, still huddling behind the pillars. Rosalind made her first foray into manhood with an attempt at a refined accent and smoking a cigarette. Touchstone had also put his bowler hat on her head; it more than covered her eyes which added to the fun.

To back up her description of Celia as “with travel much oppressed”, Rosalind looked pointedly at her after “faints for succour”, but had to repeat the line a couple of times before Touchstone grabbed Celia and helped her to collapse into his arms. Corin’s initial response of “Fair sir” caused jubilation in their ranks; Rosalind was seriously pleased to have carried off the impersonation first time out, while Celia and Touchstone low-five’d in the background.

Next up was Amiens and the band, singing a more modern version of Under The Greenwood Tree. I think this may have been when the mobile bandstand came on at the back; it was located back right and stayed there for the rest of the evening, being used by various band members as needed. Jacques prowled around the set, and I think was sitting at the front of the platform when he requested more of their music. In response to their song, Jacques did a very twitchy dance; Steve assumed he’d been at the magic mushrooms again. It caused a lot of hilarity amongst a small number of the audience over to our left; while it was amusing, we didn’t find it as funny as all that. I was also surprised that he didn’t sound particularly Welsh; after the impersonation I thought he might have a stronger accent, but at least his delivery was clear. When they sang the new verse supplied by Jacques, he ended up in the circle in the pit himself after the “invocation”.

When Orlando and Adam came on stage, I was pleased to see that Orlando was doing the heavy lifting this time – black mark expunged. I wasn’t sure Adam was going to make it tonight, but he was just able to hobble off stage with Orlando’s help. After the Duke reappeared, Jacques re-entered, and the melancholic was transformed thanks to the adrenaline rush he got from meeting Touchstone in the forest. Now he was lively and exuberant, keen to tell us all about the encounter, even changing his accent for Touchstone’s lines. The Duke wasn’t impressed with Jacques’ desire to become a fool, and in countering his accusations Jacques had plenty of options in the audience to refer to. Orlando’s arrival (front left) was abrupt and violent – he carried a dagger – but the Duke’s kind words soon softened him and he even refused to take a drink until he brought Adam into the group. Jacques’ seven ages of man speech was brisk and pretty good, and once Orlando returned with the faithful old servant, the band struck up a song while Adam was fed and Orlando spoke with the Duke. The Duke actually stopped the song to announce to all and sundry that Orlando was Sir Rowland’s son, and the commune reacted positively to the news.

Alex Waldmann as Orlando in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

Alex Waldmann as Orlando in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

After a short scene at the court for Duke Frederick to deal with Oliver, who arrived with a bag over his head, Orlando returned to compose a song in praise of his love. He was carrying an accordion, and played a few notes here and there, humming his way through the bits that were OK and writing down a few last words to complete the song. Keen to play it through, he found he couldn’t hold the song in one hand and play the accordion with the other, nor could he hold the paper in his teeth, play and sing, so he stuck the paper to one of the pillars – “Hang there, my verse”. He then got a bit carried away and started sticking more verses to other pillars, eventually running off in great excitement to adorn the forest with them. As he left the stage, a character entered at the back, later revealed to be Corin dressed in a stag outfit with antlers. He simply stood there for a bit and the lights went out – interval. I’ve no idea what that was about, but the standard of the performance had been so high I wasn’t too bothered.

During the interval, the rest of the square platform was removed, leaving just the circle of the revolve at the back. The black crumbles were then spread out to form an irregular carpet wider than the original platform; Orlando could have learned a lot about the efficient use of a broom from these stage hands. Some furniture was added to the revolve, including a red car seat – reminded me of Top Gear – and an old-fashioned fridge well stocked with cans of beer. Lights were strung from the front left pillar to the back of the stage, and although there may have been one or two other changes, I didn’t spot them.

For the restart, Corin and Touchstone came on and sat on the revolve. For quite some time, neither spoke. Corin seemed to be quite happy just to sit and ponder; that’s assuming he was actually pondering, of course. Touchstone, on the other hand, was distinctly bored and did his best to make Corin jump by thrashing the floor from time to time with the rod he was carrying: no reaction. After a few goes at this, Corin did move; he’d seen some interesting animal or bird, and like Chris Packham on sedatives, he slowly grabbed Touchstone’s arm and pointed. Touchstone peered in the indicated direction, even screwing his face up to see if that would help, but no luck – whatever interesting creature Corin had seen was invisible to him.

This business caused a lot of mirth on our left, and it was good fun for us as well. Shortly after this, Corin posed his question to Touchstone and the real scene was underway. It passed without incident, and I noticed that much of the dialogue about Corin’s shallow reasoning had been cut. This was a general choice for Touchstone; many of his lines had been cut, including the quarrel speech later on, and comic business inserted to make up for it. It can take some time to get this sort of thing working well, so I don’t criticise the actor; it’s the sort of part often given to a comedian these days. This evening’s efforts were OK, and it’s one area where I would hope for improvement in future performances.

Rosalind came on reading the rhyming couplets in her praise which Touchstone readily parodied. When Celia arrived, she sang her verses as a song, accompanied by the band at the back, and there was a little chorus so we could all join in. With the others sent away, Rosalind took some time to register who the writer of the verses was from Celia’s descriptions, and I liked that it took her so long. She dropped her trousers at the usual point, and we could see that she had taken the precaution of using additional padding in her Y-fronts. The barrage of questions for which Celia would have to “borrow … Gargantua’s mouth” was very well delivered; they often come out in a stream with very little thought in between, but this time they were separate questions, each occurring to Rosalind after the previous one had been uttered, and all perfectly clear.

Orlando and his accordion turned up with Jacques in tow, and they were distinctly impolite to each other until Jacques took his leave. Rosalind’s first line to Orlando was a bit loud, hence his reply, and then they were into a lovely set piece. There was a moment of Orlando looking at Ganymede strangely, recognising something about the youth, but it was clear he was convinced that she was a boy, even hitting her harder on the shoulder than she would have liked at one point. I didn’t spot any reactions from Celia, who was over to the right of the stage during this bit. Rosalind was a bit on edge at first, but she soon settled down to her chosen role of Orlando’s bro. He was keen to prove his love, which is why he took on her challenge, and so they left together.

For a goatherd, Audrey looked more like a female plumber whose chosen work clothes were hot pants and furry boots. She had a tool belt slung round her waist from which she drew a knife at one point. As Touchstone went through his speech prior to the arrival of Sir Oliver Martext, he went into another improv session, talking with the audience about cuckoldry, and picking someone – Damian – in the row behind us to chat to about female fidelity and marriage. He wasn’t off text for long, and this is one area that will probably change a lot through the run. Meanwhile Audrey, excited at the prospect of marriage to Touchstone (poor, deluded girl) had rushed around getting her wedding outfit together – some green netting for a veil and assorted flowers to make a bouquet.

Dave Fishley as Sir Oliver Martext in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

Dave Fishley as Sir Oliver Martext in As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

When Sir Oliver turned up, staggering slowly onto stage as befitted a man who had clearly been chilling out for several years with copious amounts of ganja, the weird couple were ready to take the plunge, and only Jacques prevented them from going through with it. Sir Oliver, constantly laughing at something or other, took his rejection extremely well, and chortled his way back off stage just as slowly as he’d meandered onto it.

With Orlando late for his appointment, Rosalind was very upset and Celia wasn’t helping matters by confirming her cousin’s worst suspicions. They were soon distracted by the offer of rustic entertainment, i.e. Silvius’ wooing of Phoebe. For this production, Phoebe was certainly “not for all markets”, being less attractive than usual with her hair in a mess, gaps in her teeth and wearing dungarees and welly boots. Other than this, there was nothing much to report in this scene.

Rosalind soon saw off Jacques, and was extremely cross with Orlando when he finally turned up. He seemed to have taken Ganymede’s earlier chiding about his neat appearance to heart, and now had rumpled clothes, straw in his hair and various other “signs of love” about him. For the wooing section, Celia sat on the revolve and had little to do in terms of her reactions, apart from her brief stint as priest during the marriage ceremony. After a brief kiss, Orlando was very keen to consummate this pretend marriage, and soon had Rosalind on her back with himself on top. She was concerned he would discover the truth and pushed him off, by which time he realised that his enthusiasm was misplaced and withdrew to the middle of the stage, embarrassed by his actions and his erection. It was clear that he hadn’t a clue who Ganymede was.

The stag hunting scene was converted into a hippie dance, and afterwards Rosalind did her best to sort out Silvius’ love life. Oliver arrived, decked out in a yellow cagoule and carrying a map pouch; his description of events was pretty good, and Celia was definitely smitten, as was he with her. Rosalind fainted, as usual, but there was no opportunity tonight for Oliver to discover the truth about her.

Audrey and Touchstone returned for a brief spat with William, and it was clear that Audrey was still determined to marry Touchstone; William was no longer on her contacts list. Oliver’s short conversation with Orlando was enough to show that their relationship had completely changed, and then we were into the endgame, with the quartet of Rosalind, Orlando, Phoebe and Silvius setting up two of the marriages to come.

The song with Audrey and Touchstone was dropped, as I recall, and we were straight into the final scene. When Audrey came on with Touchstone she had added a chunky tutu and a red nose to her costume, and the quarrel dialogue was completely cut, along with the instruction to Audrey to bear her body more seemly. The biggest surprise was that we got to see Hymen for once; this was Corin wearing the stag outfit we’d seen earlier. It’s unusual to play this last scene with Hymen included these days; I’m much more accustomed to Rosalind stage-managing the final scenes, so it felt odd to have Hymen deliver ‘her’ familiar lines.

As soon as Rosalind and Celia came through the pillars, Orlando, who had been looking elsewhere at first, caught sight of the woman he loved and walked a few steps towards her. Both he and Oliver fell to their knees as Hymen gave his speech, but soon the lovers were in each other’s arms and the kissing could proceed in earnest, only interrupted by the arrival of Jacques de Bois with his preposterous news. His older brothers greeted him warmly, as did his new sisters-in-law, while Jacques the melancholic did his best to spoil everyone’s fun by being himself. Once he was gone, the dancing could begin, and this was a very lively romp. We were delighted to see that Adam not only survived the winter in the forest, he was at the wedding as well, and was greeted warmly by Orlando and his brother – this was a first for us! At some point Orlando gave Rosalind back her necklace, which I liked, and this time we got the epilogue from Rosalind, which Pippa Dixon did very well. It was a good, upbeat ending, and we left feeling happy with our evening’s entertainment.

As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

As You Like It. Photo by Keith Pattison

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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