There’s currently a curious interest in theatre where the production is designed to draw the attention of the audience to rehearsal proceedings and backstage insights. A prime example is The Motive and the Cue at the National – and from December at the Noel Coward – which details the creative process that led to the Burton/Gielgud Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. Omar Elerian’s new production of As You Like It that opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last month puts yet another perspective on a backstage approach to a production. Here we have a group of (they won’t mind me saying it) veteran actors, many of whom were in a production of the same play in 1978; and they have come together (with a few thrusting younger performers) to re-enact for us their 45-year-old performances.
They weren’t the only veterans at last night’s performance. Not only does this show clearly attract an older demographic, but I also clearly remember the 18-year-old me going to see this production when it moved to London’s Aldwych Theatre in September 1978. Look – here’s the programme!
Interestingly, none of the actors on stage in Stratford was in that Aldwych show – although I did notice one leading actor from the 1978 production in our audience! I recall how I was bowled over by the production, and for many years it was probably in the top ten shows I’d seen. I have a feeling that some of the music in the current production – the arrangement of Under the Greenwood Tree for example – is either the same as, or extremely similar to, the musical arrangements in the 1978 production. So for me, I also had a lot of opportunity to wallow in the nostalgia of the evening.
Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s design primarily concerns itself with a rehearsal room, where the actors present the play, although with all the pictures and written sheets on the back wall it reminded me more of a police murder hunt case room. Of course, it’s a totally artificial presentation in many ways. As the cast gradually arrive on stage at the beginning, they natter with the audience until a stage manager gives the nod that the show is due to start. Then Michael Bertenshaw, who plays Oliver, addresses the audience to explain what’s about to take place. On more than one occasion, James Hayes (Touchstone) turns to the audience to remind them that he is a classical actor, implying that he’s scraping the barrel by appearing in this show – indeed, on one exit, he adds to Shakespeare’s text, “I’m wasted here”. You get the drift. For reasons known to others but not to me, a rock band slowly descends on the stage like a deus ex machina at the end of the first act – giving the cast a chance to have a bop and a boogie. The modern cage contraption that forms this piece of rigging is totally at odds with the bucolic charm we’re straining to imagine and it gets in the way. Admittedly it lifts early in the second act, taking Orlando with it – heaven knows why.
There are some nice moments where the older age of the actors is deliberately at odds with the younger age of the characters – David Fielder and Celia Bannerman as Silvius and Phoebe, for example, put an interesting slant on young romantic love. And Rosalind’s reworked epilogue, which reflects the autumn of everyone’s years, is a neat piece of writing – although, I’m not sure it was completely necessary, the epilogue as written by Shakespeare contains ageless pieces of advice! However, I couldn’t help asking myself, beyond entertainment for entertainment’s sake – and of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, what actually is the point of this production? And I don’t mean that negatively – it’s great to get a new perspective, and for the most part it works. But I got the impression that they were doing this production this way simply because they could; to be honest, it’s more “filler” than “killer”.
There are some lulls in the proceedings too; the second act suffers from a lack of scenery and a lack of costume, and whereas it’s easy to imagine the Duke’s Court in the Rehearsal Room it’s far harder to envisage woodland glades. At the end of the show, the back wall gives way to reveal a beautiful tableau of the Forest of Arden – it’s as idyllic a presentation as you could possibly imagine. And it’s at that point that you realise that that – the Forest – is the main thing that has been lacking in the show. The episodic nature of the later courtship scenes, with Silvius, Phoebe, Audrey and so on, are normally fun as they dart playfully all over the stage forest, but in this production this all feels very static – and I confess, I did get a little bored, which is the cardinal sin of the theatre. It’s also when the forest is revealed, and the actors move towards it that the sense of nostalgia is at its most acute; when their voices start to merge with the recorded voices of the past, it feels like they are genuinely going back in time.
There are some splendid performances that really keep the show lifted. Geraldine James as Rosalind and Maureen Beattie as Celia are a perfect pairing, and the evening revolves around them completely. James Hayes brings tons of comedy to Touchstone, and Malcolm Sinclair proves himself to be a remarkably youthful Orlando. Robin Soans does a terrific good cop bad cop routine as the two Dukes – Senior and Frederick; and amongst the younger members of the cast, I particularly enjoyed Rose Wardlaw, especially as Le Beau, realising after a while that he was meant to be French, and Tyreke Leslie whose calm quiet voicing of the role of Adam was very touching.
It’s very quirky, at times it’s very funny, occasionally it’s rather moving, but most of all it’s very charming. Perhaps it’s fair to say this is more of an experiment than an actual production per se, but it succeeds on those grounds. Despite its faults it’s still very entertaining and I’ve never seen a Shakespeare play performed this way before, so that’s a first!
P. S. I did like the fact that, unusually (but like the 1978 production) they didn’t cut Touchstone’s speech about rhetoric, which culminates in his insightful observation, “Your If is your only peacemaker – much virtue in If”. Remembering this production when I was writing an essay about this play at university back in 1980, I pounced upon this line as the key to the whole play, which I determined was all about the art of compromise. I read my essay as my tutor listened in stony silence. His verdict at the end was the brief but damning comment: “Possible interpretation”. In other words, I got it wrong.
Production photos by Ellie Kurttz