at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Directed by Maria Aberg
Starring Pippa Nixon, Alex Waldemann, Nicolas Tennant, Joanna Horton, Oliver Ryan
Music composed by Laura Marling
It is received wisdom that Shakespeare has no boundaries, that his plays have limitless, malleable parameters. Such was his genius and such were the themes to which he chose to apply that genius. The plays are not just universal but they are omnipotent, omniscient and irrepressible. They can be transferred from the war in Afghanistan to the grey horrors of the Holocaust, from the feudal Japan of Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) to the eerie distant galaxy of Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956). With Shakespeare, as with no other writer, you can go anywhere and do anything. So how long will it be before a director decides to do something fresh with As You Like It?
Cast and crew in the RSC’s latest production of one of the bard’s most popular (and therefore most oft’ seen plays) have a done a fine job – nay they have done a tremendous job – at matching their energy levels to the very impressive production values. They have matched their skills also to the demands of the text, which often sacrifices narrative impetus for long tangential speeches about the nature of love. Of course, this is Shakespeare – there are long tangential speeches about the nature of love; what do you expect?! Maybe some attention to those malleable, limitless parameters.
Although, this may just be a gripe. Maria Aberg has produced perhaps the finest traditional version of As You Like It that is likely to be staged anywhere. Staying within the confines of the tried and tested, she has hit eleven in all corners. So why does it feel as if it has only a tenth of the impact that it should? Well, frankly, because red, no matter how bright, is still red; yellow is still yellow, green still green, and so are all the other colours of the forest. And, most tellingly, this production was yet another that contrasted the monochrome of the court to the warm autumnal dashes of the forest’s hippy commune. It was yet another production that seemed unable to get to Arden quick enough, and so left the first quarter of the play a drab and malingering prologue to the fun and games. Isn’t it about time a production was mounted that made the court scenes as memorable as the rest of the play?
The disappointment of another straightforward production of As You Like It aside, much praise must be awarded this one. Most notable was Pippa Nixon, who showed no little agility in her switch from Shakespearean courtly staple to Shakespearean romcom queen Rosalind. It was a performance of real charm and wit, and an enormous amount of energy. Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone was cheeky enough, wild enough (complete with improv stand up insert where he interacted joyously with the audience on the theme of marriage) to be a highly memorable turn in a long line of memorable Touchstones (it is maybe more difficult to forget a Touchstone, so full of the stuff is he that a certain type of actor gets into the business for in the first place). Most memorable performance of the production however was Oliver Ryan’s Jaques, who, given the (un)enviable task of delivering the ‘All the World’s a Stage’ speech, delivered his entire performance in an edgy staccato that spliced Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter to ribbons. It was electrifying, hilarious, and perhaps a sign of something that can be done with the rhythms of the play. Ryan found a way to embody the nomadic enigma of Jaques, the foreignness of him even when in a band of outcasts, and give him more compassion than maybe even the play’s author had had the time to bestow. Always the most interesting character in the play, in Ryan’s hands he was much of the time the only thing worth watching whenever he was on the stage.
A big commercial draw for this production has been the commission of Laura Marling to compose original music for it, and the soundtrack is fitting and warming. It seems here at least, in the forest of Arden, that Marling’s one-woman attempt to stop English folk dead in its tracks at 1971 has found not just the sympathetic acoustics of a theatrical wood, but also the sympathetic ears of a theatrical audience. The music was a major contributing factor to the general all round impression that it was impossible not to applaud at the end without a grin perched a few inches behind the clap. Ignoring that Aberg, for the last few seconds, seemed to decide to fling off the hippy commune, Glastonbury ’71 vibe for something closer to Glee, this production came up with a solid, convincing and consistent tone and atmosphere that floated through the audience like an intoxicant. It was the best As You Like It I have seen. Now I’d like to see a different one.