With the overall success of the National Theatre Wales’ inaugural year in 2011 it may have been tempting for the nation’s erstwhile top theatre company, Mold’s Theatr Clwyd, to either fade coyly into the shadows or lurch ungracefully into populist jazz-hands revues. But Clwyd have thankfully stuck to their guns and come up with this solid, enjoyable and somewhat formidably professional production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
A first half generally lacking in energy and generally played out in a forced monochrome only served to emphasise everything the production got right in the second half. The light comedy became bright and bawdy, with Christian Patterson’s show-stealing turn as Touchstone, veering between the antagonisms of Eric Morecambe and Jack Black at his most tiresomely gurning, really raising the roof. As You Like It is a play to slap your thigh to, to slosh beer tankards with. Once the slapping and the sloshing began to make its way felt around the stage it soon filtered through to the audience and a jolly night was had by all, cast and audience alike.
The casting was impeccable, although the opening few scenes did not inspire as much confidence as one walked from the theatre with. Daniel Llewelyn-Williams brandished his riding crop with as little menace as Frances Barber memorably cracked a flop with hers in Madame de Sade at Wyndhams a few years ago. There Barber the sexpot let her riding crop do all the talking and was decidedly lacking in any allure, displaying all the problems of trying to channel a dominant character trait through one prop; here Llewelyn-Williams forced his villainy out through his prop and was as menacing as an old guy honking the horn of his Porsche at some traffic lights.
Dyfrig Morris’s dual performance, starting with his imposing presence as the serious Duke Frederick, stands for a marker for the production as a whole, for when he returns in the second half as the simple farmer’s boy William, he is so toweringly stupid, so ludicrous, a cross between Kasper Hauser and an oak tree mid-fell, he is by this point one of many well-judged performances to be found at the far end of the theatrical scale. Robert Blythe as Orlando is lovelorn in the same way that Africa is hot, Hedydd Dylan as Rosalind is as intelligent, strong and lovable as the trees in the Forest of Arden are tall.
Philip Bretherton as Jacques, hampered perhaps by being the most recognisable face on the stage, is authoritative, avuncular and Machiavellian-light, as he drifts amongst the action in long coat and black hate like a spectral Matthew Hopkins. Jacques is an unerring presence, a commentator and meddler, and helps with the production’s through-the-looking-glass feel.
Bretherton manages to deliver the ‘All the World’s a Stage’ speech with a fresh seriousness, and makes one of the Bard’s most easily recollected musings seem less familiar. The delivery of it, in fact, marks the end of the undercooked first half and opens the way for the unrestrained full-colour of the second.
Theatr Clwyd’s As You Like It is façade, and in the second half the play holds tightly to that line between the reality and the theatricality of what Shakespeare was offering his audience. Many productions miss this as they concentrate on the jokes, but here Theatr Clwyd, in the end, did not miss a trick. The disappointment in the set in the first half of the play (an almost Brechtian colonnade, which lingers a little too long), is replaced with evidence that confidence in Terry Hands’ vision is well-founded. The trees of Hands’ Arden are sturdy, unending, earthy; their leaves however are glitzy, school-nativity, Vegas. The folk songs were delivered with panache by silk-voiced minstrels who were who were no more sheepherders than I am Anne Briggs. This is theatre at its most traditional, at its most pure, coming from medieval mystery plays, through Shakespeare to our cynical post-Pinter expectations, and Hands has understood utterly how to tackle it. It makes for a surprising and frustrating first half in hindsight, but it also makes, on the whole, for an extremely strong and loyal interpretation of one of the Bard’s most popular romps.