Thursday, 26 September 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: As You Like It - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Midway through the Epilogue of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy, Rosalind makes this impassioned plea; ‘I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, like as much of this play as please you’ and to the men in the audience ‘that between you and the women the play may please’. These words are like catnip to a reviewer, and I will not be the last in a long line who simultaneously cite this line whilst selecting which parts of the production ‘pleased’ us.

'As You Like It' is part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ambitious touring programme, which brings three productions to a venue and rotates them over a period of two weeks. In this instance, the other two productions are ‘Measure For Measure’ and ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’. This gruelling schedule of lengthy adaptations also has a rep cast, who take on roles in all three productions, particularly focusing on large roles in two each. I am in awe at the cast’s ability to remember their lines so well for such weighty roles in three different productions on the same tour - I can’t even remember my own PIN number!!

The RSC’s production begins in a court occupied by suited men and prosecco-quaffing women, set in a sparse, rather industrialised court, which is softened only by a large, circular patch of artificial grass on the floor of the stage. The production design is excellent, with its minimalism allowing us to focus on the performances, which were excellent. In the first 15 minutes it had occurred to me that I was watching the best, most-coherent and most balanced production of Shakespeare that I have seen in about two decades. The scene veered from dramatic to comic beat with ease and never missed its mark, holding the audience rapt. However, upon arriving in the forest the creative team made their presence felt quite intrusively. As a backdrop fell away to reveal Stephen Brimson-Lewis’s rough-hewn timber set design (with an enormous circular shape as a backdrop), the cast got changed on stage whilst a voiceover called ‘Miss Stanton to the stage please. Miss Stanton to the stage. All the world’s a stage’ (Y’know, like a forehead-slappingly-conspicuous big circular world made out of wood panels) and more jarringly, the house lights came up. The programme notes reveal the vision of Director Kimberly Sykes, because they reveal how Shakespeare plays broke the fourth wall consistently, through soliloquies making direct appeals to the audience, things being thrown from the stage, the audience being entreated to conspire with characters or, and here’s the rub, the audience being visible to the stage. However, one only needs a B grade at A-Level in Theatre Studies to remember that bringing up the house lights becomes an alienating device that detaches us from the cathartic immersion of a play… and this is exactly what happened. After the immersive and perfectly pitched opening, the Brechtian devices alienated so jarringly that I didn’t listen to a thing anyone said for about 5 minutes and it was left up to me to get back into the plot. If the director intended to alienate the audience, surely it would be for the purposes of engaging in dialectical theatre, which raised issues to be discussed, which of course, are not forthcoming in this production.

I found myself thinking ‘I know why the exiled Duke is played by the same actor, because they are brothers. But why are the exiled Duke’s companions a direct composite of the Courtiers… Are they related as well?!’. A distracting choice of casting. The house lights remain up for the rest of the 2 hours and 56 minute running time and like the casting, I eventually settled in to the new norm.

Once in the wood, Shakespeare’s play becomes overloaded and sub-plots vie for attention at the expense of narrative momentum. I have a controversial (nay blasphemous!) belief that Shakespeare plays could do with a jolly good abridging here or there and this was no exception. Chief culprits in 'As You Like It' are the scenes including the shepherds and Touchstone, the court fool, who has accompanied Rosalind and Celia into the forest. Shakespeare’s fools are often a minor irritant in productions, because their witty wordplay and bawdy badinage can’t help but feel 400 years old and Sandy Grierson’s portrayal of this fool was no exception. It was a gallant try, but after the interval he was noticeably unable to engender any laughs from the audience and whenever he returned to the stage, he signalled another halt to the plot’s momentum and a slow-paced tangent of a scene.

The second half seemed mired in its reverence for the original text, but there were notable high points, such as Rosalind’s asides to the audience during the wooing role-play and Celia reading Orlando’s poetry that he has been etching into a tree, which in this case was played by an audience member wearing a coat made from "Post-it notes".

Throughout the production the performances were outstanding and met the high expectations of the RSC, with everyone making Shakespeare’s words sound like everyday 21st century English. Early in Act 1, the play looked in danger of being stolen by Emily Johnstone, whose attendant to Duke Frederick is awkward and bumbling to great comic effect. Other notable performers are Antony Byrne who payed both Duke’s with contrasting tempers; one cold and tyrannical, the other noble and warm. However, this production belongs to Lucy Phelps, as Rosalind and Sophie Khan Levy as Celia, together a pair of spiffing girls, awkwardly eyeing prospective men and grasping moments of farce whenever the opportunity arose. Both performers clown expertly, with impeccable comic-timing and energy that carries 'As You Like It' along. Their presence on stage noticeably lifts the production. Phelps is an incredible actress who in a single 360 pivot can portray a boyish malcontent, a swooning girl, who simultaneously confides that she is completely blagging it and back to swaggering disaffected lad; with every one of those beats provoking chuckles from an audience who egg her on for more. I find it strange that Kimberly Sikes was able to find more comic pace and timing from Rosalind (through Phelps) than she was from Grierson’s fool.

'As You Like It' buckles under the weight of Shakespeare’s top-heavy plot and the creative team’s interpretation of the play, but it never fully loses its way, or the audience’s attention. Rosalind implored that we ‘like as much of this play as please you’, and there is much that pleases. The RSC’s performers are a joy to behold and the way in which they make Shakespeare accessible is invaluable.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 25/9/19

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