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Open Review: "Shakespeare and Performance"

Review of The Bridge Project As You Like It

Michael Dobson, Birkbeck College – University of London

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Comments on this article are now closed. To read the comments left during the open review period, click either on the speech bubble to the left of each paragraph below or on the links in the gray sidebar to the right.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 13 [Editor’s note: Original plans for this special issue included a cluster of reviews of a single production; our hopes were to use this cluster as a way to explore the variations of individual responses to a show and the nature of reviewing theatrical productions. Although we were not able to put into place a cluster of reviews, we are hoping that Michael Dobson’s review of the production can serve as a springboard for a conversation about this specific production and about the larger practice of academic theatre reviewing. Comments responding to both of these issues are welcome here. This conversation will be archived on this site. We might also choose to print excerpts from it in Shakespeare Quarterly, though should we do so, individual commenters will be contacted for permission prior to appearing in print.]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 6 It is extraordinarily difficult to represent any live performance adequately: any night at the theatre is not just a multi-media artistic event but a social one too. When it comes to a great revival of a Shakespeare play, it is hard to bear even fragmentary witness to the myriad interpretative possibilities and affective nuances opened up by every gesture, every phrase, every fleeting theatrical image. But it can be just as difficult to do justice to a much more common experience of live Shakespeare, that of mediocrity, indifference, the disappointingly familiar sense that one is watching a cast going through the motions of a run-of-the-mill production which seems to have fired nobody’s imagination at all, not even that of its director. Such, alas, was my experience of seeing Sam Mendes’ As You Like It: six months on, were it not for the notes and sketches and the copy of the programme which now lie in front of me, I might have forgotten the show entirely.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 8 Of the unprompted impressions which remain, those concerning the audience are for the most part more vivid and less generalized than those concerning the production. Having booked a cheap seat in the gallery, I was surprised to be upgraded to the rear stalls: three weeks into its run, this show was doing such poor business that the management preferred to concentrate its meagre audiences downstairs rather than having them spread thinly around the whole house. Many of those around me had also been transferred from other seating areas, and some were actively puzzled about it: I overheard a French couple to my left wondering whether this happened often, then settling into the red plush and making desultory conversation about the auditorium and the advertisements in the programme. It was a while since I had been to a mainstream London theatre in July, and I was struck by how large a percentage of the audience were clearly new to the Old Vic and perhaps to Britain as a destination, so many tourists who had decided that since they were in London they ought to spend at least one night dutifully sitting in a famous theatre in front of a famous play. Evidently there had been plenty of tickets available for this particular opportunity to do so, and I had a sudden vision of the queue at the half-price last-minute ticket booth in Leicester Square, its members making and re-making arbitrary decisions, as they neared the counter, between As You Like It, The Mousetrap, The Woman in Black and Dirty Dancing. But there were one or two regulars present too, who had presumably booked their own places further in advance: not long before the house lights dimmed, for instance, I saw Russ McDonald[1] filing into a seat elsewhere in the stalls, and I remember basely wondering, like an economy airline passenger unexpectedly placed in club class, whether he had paid full price for his ticket.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 7 Things to record about the show itself. The previous year’s Bridge Project production of The Winter’s Tale had tried to make the transatlantic make-up of its company part of the thematic content of the show by casting Britons as Sicilians and Americans as Bohemians, which if scarcely invited by the script at least provided critics and publicists with a convenient talking-point. As You Like It does not readily lend itself to this treatment, and didn’t receive it. Its opening scenes instead presented a world – in this respect not unlike central London – in which one was always as likely to hear an American accent as an English one. Just for once you could tell that Oliver (Edward Bennett) had enjoyed a different education to Orlando (Christian Camargo), since he had audibly been to RADA[2] while his younger brother had been forced to make do with Julliard. (This may or may not have explained why this Orlando seemed so catastrophically uncomfortable with Shakespeare’s syntax, apparently unable to look straight at anything except the floor in embarrassment at his own continual mis-stressing for much of the evening). The princesses were similarly differentiated, this time with Juliet Rylance’s Rosalind the fruity RADA alumna and Michelle Beck’s Celia a nasal-vowelled East Coast girl who pronounced ‘Aliena’ as ‘Ayley-eena.’ Perhaps more surprisingly, this inconsequent mixture of North American and English pronunciations was as prevalent in the unfrequented provinces as it was around the ducal court: in the forest Aaron Krohn’s Silvius was a goofy hayseed with the brim of his hat turned up at the front (reminiscent of a younger version of Joe E. Brown as Jack Lemmon’s admirer in Some Like It Hot), while Anthony O’Donnell’s benignly self-satisfied Corin would have been as much at home in Ambridge[3] as he was in Arden. Only Stephen Dillane’s genteel, absent-mindedly drunk-looking Jaques – who resembled less an exiled cynic than a failed antiquarian bookseller – briefly traversed this unacknowledged phonetic Atlantic, when he sang his new verse to ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ as a caricature of the young Bob Dylan (‘If it should come to pass…’. 2.5.47-54). Fifty years ago this gag would have been just as beside the point, but it would at least have been topical.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 Despite all this, the general impression I retain from the first half of the play is less auditory than visual, one of unmitigated gloom. Modern productions of As You Like It have frequently decided to treat the opening two acts as taking place during winter and the remainder in the spring (a choice unmandated by the text but with a history that might be traced all the way back to eighteenth-century producers’ habit of transplanting the song of the owl and the cuckoo into this play from the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost). Mendes simply decided to redouble this ploy by setting much of the first half of the play not just in winter but at night: time and time again, scenes normally assumed to take place in natural light featured actors stumbling onto a dim stage carrying flaming torches. (In whichever miscellaneously transatlantic parallel universe this story was supposed to be taking place, incidentally, modern clothing had been invented, but not electric lighting). Am I right in remembering that even the exiled Duke’s picnic in the forest in 2.7 was a nocturnal affair? I definitely remember that its elaborate preparations had been set up all over the stage by Amiens and his associates during 2.5, and that they largely obscured Adam’s upstage faint from hunger in the succeeding scene, as well as making Orlando look very stupid for not seeing this ample potential food supply at once. But as things turned out, his efforts in that direction went for nothing anyway, since as in Stephen Pimlott’s RSC production back in 1996 this Adam, though solicitously fed by Duke Senior’s courtiers, died at the end of the banquet scene. Amazingly, nobody on stage at the time said anything about this. I think I can just about imagine a social situation in which a guest at a dinner party might peg out without anyone else present feeling that they ought to comment on the fact, but that certainly isn’t how things are usually done in Shakespeare.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 As Coriolanus knew, one should never flaunt one’s stoicism in public, but in justice to myself I should record the fact that I did not leave during the interval, even though my notes, as if in outraged solidarity with Adam, peter out at this point in the play. I was rewarded for staying by Ashlie Atkinson’s performance as Phoebe, a character whose vanity here seemed a likeable foible rather than a symptom of incurable arrogance, perhaps because she was the one member of this cast who clearly possessed a sense of humour rather than just a penchant for smiling with unnatural emphasis from time to time. I also remember thinking, unusually, that in this production Phoebe was certainly better off with Silvius at the end of the play than she would have been with Ganymede; because I definitely remember being very, very tired by Juliet Rylance’s Rosalind. Sounding throughout like the pluckily optimistic heroine of a British wartime propaganda film, Rylance seemed determined to compensate not just for her Orlando’s sullen, inattentive awkwardness but for all the sorrow in the world. Her sole idea about how to play Rosalind consisted of behaving as though the poor girl were in a permanent state of generalized, breathless, would-be infectious joy, and even Shakespeare’s text occasionally had to bow to this reading. At the start of 2.4, for instance, this Rosalind, instead of complaining about how weary her spirits were, bounced into Arden like a demented Pollyanna shouting ‘O Jupiter, how merry are my spirits!’ (an emendation which makes nonsense of Touchstone’s response). The near-parodic Home Counties quality of this relentlessly upbeat voice was underlined by the strategic addition of an extra word to the princess’s dialogue about her pronunciation at 3.2.330-2:

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Orlando: Your accent is something finer than you could purchase in so removed a dwelling.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Rosalind: I have actually [pronounced ecktually] been told so of many…

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 5 In my notes I find the words ‘Is Juliet Rylance the poor man’s Honeysuckle Weeks?’[4] I do think that any performance in this role ought to prompt larger questions than that.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 5 Were I attempting to describe all the Shakespearean productions I saw during 2010 instead of just Mendes’ As You Like It, I would try to make most of the points I have tried to raise above simply by devoting no more than two or three sentences to it. Perhaps the best way to indicate that a show was a harmless but completely unriveting non-event is not to dwell on the thing at any length but to turn one’s attention elsewhere, just as one was continually tempted to do at the time. In my experience, an exceptional production of Shakespeare in London can feel as though it is happening at the very centre of its cultural moment: above and beyond the sort of buzz that can be manufactured by effective PR, great shows make their own sense of occasion, making their audiences feel that not just their consciousness but that of the entire city is focussed on what is taking place on the stage. During Sam Mendes’ As You Like It at the Old Vic I instead experienced an overwhelming sense that all over London that night thousands of people were talking and thinking about other things entirely, and probably more interesting things at that. It wasn’t an unprofessional or incompetent production, and it wasn’t noticeably less stimulating or cogent than at least seventy percent of the Shakespeares which English audiences have been routinely offered for years. But Mendes’ show was to a really good As You Like It as a decaffeinated espresso is to a real one: it looked roughly similar, it even reminded you, faintly, of how the real thing might taste, but it never at any point threatened to quicken the heartbeat.

  • [1] An eminent Shakespearean scholar.
  • [2] The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, a prestigious acting school in Bloomsbury, London.
  • [3] Fictitious rural village in fictitious ‘Borsetshire’ in the English Midlands, setting of the longest-running radio soap opera in the world, the BBC’s The Archers.
  • [4] Honeysuckle Weeks: patrician English actress best-known for her performance as a plucky upper-class girl in uniform in the television series Foyle’s War, though she also played a plucky upper-class Viola in a touring Twelfth Night in 2005.
  • Notes

    12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [1] An eminent Shakespearean scholar.

    13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [2] The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, a prestigious acting school in Bloomsbury, London.

    14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [3] Fictitious rural village in fictitious ‘Borsetshire’ in the English Midlands, setting of the longest-running radio soap opera in the world, the BBC’s The Archers.

    15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 [4] Honeysuckle Weeks: patrician English actress best-known for her performance as a plucky upper-class girl in uniform in the television series Foyle’s War, though she also played a plucky upper-class Viola in a touring Twelfth Night in 2005.

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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/shakespearequarterlyperformance/dobson/