2016, as we are constantly reminded, is a year to celebrate Shakespeare. 400 years on from his death, the Bard’s unparalleled contribution to world drama is being commemorated everywhere you look. And so, what better time is there to finally familiarise oneself with his entire 37-play strong corpus?
In 2016, I have decided, I will see at least one production of every play Shakespeare wrote. Whether I will succeed or whether I will die halfway around the world , penniless and alone in mid-November, desperately searching for just one production of The Two Noble Kinsmen (yeah, me neither) is anyone’s guess.
I have already seen Gregory Doran’s Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V for the RSC, and I have tickets to the same company’s Hamlet in Stratford and to Filter’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith in the near future. Once you include the National’s As You Like It (which I have just walked out of), that leaves 30 tickets to seek out.
As I go, I will write reviews of every play, whether for a publication or for myself, trying to analyse both the production and the play, and –somewhat arrogantly – to judge how well Shakespeare’s writing translates to twenty-first century audiences. So, without further ado…
I have only seen As You Like It once before (shocking, I know) and that was a long time ago, so Polly Findlay’s production for the National was something of an education. It is a ‘green world’ comedy, one of a few Shakespeare plays that revel in displacing amorously inclined city-dwellers into the magical countryside, where havoc reigns in a confused mess of mistaken identity and crossed wires. Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) and Orlando (Joe Bannister) are the headline lovers here, both driven into the Forest of Arden by the tyrannical Duke Ferdinand (a sinisterly clinical Leo Wringer), where they are joined by a host of similarly exiled lovelorn town mice.
Making full use of the Olivier’s size, Findlay has crafted a show that prioritises design and direction. Duke Frederick’s court is now a busy office populated by anonymous, mechanical suits. After a raucous, hedonistic wrestling match scene à la Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, this office is literally whisked away as the furniture is drawn upwards on great wires to dangle, not un-elegantly, as the trees of a strangely post-apocalyptic Forest of Arden. Shadowy figures hang amongst the table-leg branches, providing sound-effects throughout with claps and whistles.
It is a breath-taking transformation (marred only slightly on the performance I saw by a five-minute delay while a team of apologetic stagehands untangled a disobedient tree) but such majesty masks the flaws of the play itself, which has a distinctly pedestrian feel to it.
Perhaps it is because the performance I saw was only days before the production closed and a sluggishness born of familiarity had seeped in, but Findlay’s production seemed to be over-reliant on its fêted coup de théâtre. There were shows of inventiveness and innovation in the performances as well, but for the most part, it felt like there was little conviction to back them up. Style was most definitely over substance.
Craig’s Rosalind is strident and unsympathetic, and although her impatience is refreshing, it juxtaposes awkwardly with her apparently helpless lovesickness. Opposite Bannister’s shy, angular, earnest Orlando, she has to be headstrong and weak-kneed all at the same time, and there is just not enough chemistry between the pair to make it work.
Paul Chahidi’s Jaques delivers his ‘all the world’s a stage’ speech with hesitancy, as if coming up with it on the spot, lending it a rare profundity in doing so, but he is relentlessly whiney otherwise; his complaints to John Ramm’s exiled Duke have little behind them but adolescent misery. Similarly, Mark Benton’s Touchstone and Alan Williams’ Corin philosophical sparring is delivered with an unconventional deliberation but there is no spark to their argument, no sense of wits being put to the test.
As You Like It is certainly not my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies. It lacks the impeccable structure of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a truly fantastic tragi-comic creation like Malvolio in Twelfth Night. There is an awful lot of swooning as well and unless this is acted out with real conviction – which it is not in Findlay’s production – the love-at-first-sight moments feel crowbarred in and unnatural. That said, I can imagine it being a lot more enjoyable than this.
As You Like It was my first Shakespearean comedy of 2016 and the National’s production was something of a disappointment as well as a discovery. Filter’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith is next. Fingers crossed, eh?