Saturday, 27 February 2016

A Night at the Theatre

On Thursday evening, I found myself in a theatre in a Buckinghamshire town watching a live relay from another theatre - the National in London - of their current production of As You Like It. I was not there from choice, a night at the theatre being a long way from my idea of fun. Still (I consoled myself), at least it wasn't that eighth circle of Hell known as the West End, and it might even be a good production; one must, I told myself as I downed a second pre-curtain snifter, keep an open mind. It is surely quite possible that a theatre director can do justice to Shakespeare, throw new light on his work, bring out subtleties of meaning and characterisation that might escape us text-readers. Let's give this National Theatre As You Like It a chance...
 Alas, my generous frame of mind dissolved with the first sight of the horrific, high-tech, dayglo-coloured, fantastically elaborate set. It was the image of a frantic, strip-lit modern office or call centre, with everyone not hammering away at a computer keyboard engaged in pointless scurrying to and fro (the supernumerary cast was huge - heaven knows what this production cost). And then there was a cleaner mopping the floor - a gormless young man who turned out to be Orlando, for yes, this was, despite all appearances, As You Like It by William Shakespeare.
 A little later, I removed my head from my hands to find the weedy Orlando engaged in a wrestling match with a huge black man, to the accompaniment of cheerleaders, flashing lights and thumping music. And so it went on. Virtually nothing we were shown bore any obvious relation to the lines being spoken, and the modern costumes and bizarre casting (much of it 'colour-blind') made it extremely difficult to work out who was who or what was going on.
 Maybe, I told myself with no great conviction, things will improve when they get to the Forest of Arden. Then, with an almighty crashing and bashing of metal on metal, the entire set was hauled up into the gods and left hanging down to the stage in a tangled mess (with some of the poor supernumeraries still at their posts, obliged to keep still and silent in the shadows). This, I realised, was to be the Forest of Arden, and there the rest of the action played laboriously out. At some point before the final act I retreated to the pub over the road for a much-needed double.
 This As You Like It was, it seemed to me, a classic case of the production entirely overwhelming the work - and even, perversely, rendering much of it incomprehensible. A comedy that demands a light touch and close attention to the words and their delivery has been crushed underfoot up by a director's rampaging ego. God knows it is not the first time this has happened to Shakespeare, and it won't be the last. But why apparently sane people pay good money to go and see it done to our greatest - the world's greatest - poet and dramatist I cannot understand. I can only put it down to the absurd prestige and kudos The Theatre - and Going to the Theatre - have in this country.
 Never mind - Shakespeare of course towers unscathed above everything that is done to his works and in his name. And even in this lamentable production there were a couple of performances I enjoyed - Patsy Ferran's Celia and Paul Chahidi's Jaques. Rosalind too was good, though the modern dress meant that she looked much the same as Ganymede and as herself - Orlando would merely have taken her for Rosalind with a new hairstyle. Thus, as in so many other ways, did the production make a nonsense of the play. I don't think I'll be beating a path to the West End any time soon.









16 comments:

  1. I have to say that I have enjoyed every production of As You Like It I've ever seen, despite heroic efforts on the part various directors and actors to ensure that I don't. Kenneth Branagh added NINJAS and still couldn't manage to wipe the smile off my face.

    Sounds like the National Theatre might have figured it out, tho.

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  2. I fear you're right Jeff - and urge you to avoid this one. Just out of interest, did you ever see a recent production that played it straight and left it to Shakespeare?

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  3. If "late in the last century" counts as recent, and Madison, New Jersey high school seniors rehearsing in the park counts as a production, yes. And Act III, scene 2, where Touchstone and Celia read Orlando's (terrible) Rosalind poems to Rosalind, was probably the best and funniest I've ever seen it done.

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  4. I completely agree that the set was gimmicky beyond belief but I thought the production's attention to the words was better than it usually is. While the opening scene was eye scarringly garish - like being trapped inside a packet of licorice allsorts - the set that was supposed to be the forest of Arden could just be ignored and the actors I thought did a wonderful job.

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  5. Indeed they did their best, and the verse speaking was mostly good - it just seemed to me a losing battle of actors (and words) against look-at-me production.

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    1. It's true - it was horrible. If any of your readers want to see how horrible the realisation of Arden Forest was (I wouldn't even think of inflicting that first place on anyone) there is an Instagram photograph of it (possibly shot illegally?) among the pictures on the account of peter_marlow - sadly, I only saw it because he was a magnum photographer & they announced his death with a photograph on their Instagram account

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  6. Of all Shakespeare's plays, is there another one where the setting is so crucial? The forest of Arden is a character. Take As You Like It out of Arden and you might as well cast Steve Buscemi as Rosalind. And I say that as a fan.

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  7. You've probably given some avant-garde director an idea there, Jeff!

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  8. I also saw the play at the cinema. I did not book tickets for the theatre because I had read a couple of negative reviews which made the play sound like the worst kind of German Regietheater, and I only went to the cinema at my wife's insistence. However, I am glad that I did for I thoroughly enjoyed it. I did not find that the production crushed the spirit of the play. On the contrary I thought that it nicely and imaginatively balanced playfulness and pathos.

    Setting Act 1 in a dystopian modern-day broking house evoked for me a "working-day world" full of briars. I also thought the wrestling match was a hoot.

    I did not miss the absence of cow-pat naturalism in the setting of the Forest of Arden. For me the set worked as a world elsewhere away from the "court". And I thought that the use of actors to play the sheep was genuinely funny.

    The text was heavily cut and characters were omitted. But that is par for the course these days and on the whole I thought this helped the play. For me much of Touchstone's "humour" does not work now (eg his speech on the degrees of quarrelling, which was wisely cut)and who pined at the absence of Hymen and Sir Oliver Martext?

    I also liked the portrayal of Orlando as a gauche young man rather than a strutting peacock. I saw nothing wrong with his being a cleaner in Act 1. After all his brother is supposed to be demeaning him.

    The acting was never less than good and in the case of Rosalind, Celia and Jacques, I thought it excellent.

    As to Jeff's comments, in Shakespeare's time there would have been a bare stage rather than a naturalistic setting and Rosalind would have been played by a boy. Who knows, he might have borne a passing likeness to a young Steve Buscemi.

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    1. I agree completely about how good the production was - except for the set, which was a distracting gimmick. The bare stage actually works perfectly well. That is how it was played a few years ago in a really excellent production at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney under the direction of Eamonn Flack who is an exceptional director - incidentally, the sheep in Aran jumpers feature was part of that production and I wonder whether the National Theatre director borrowed the idea or whether it is a case of synchronicity.

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  9. Steve can not play Rosalind. He can play Celia, but that's as far as I'm willing to do.

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