I’ve always liked As You Like It – but I hadn’t seen a production of it for many a long year. In fact, the only other time I’ve seen it performed by a professional cast was way, way back – the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre, on 7th September 1978, when my “2nd circle” ticket (don’t suppose I was happy about sitting that far away from the stage) cost a full £2. It featured such fantastic performers as Charlotte Cornwell as Rosalind, Cherie Lunghi as Celia, Charles Dance as Oliver, and the wonderful (and sadly never seen in the UK any more) Jane Carr as Phoebe; but the stand-out performance for me was Alan David as Touchstone. He made him really sneery; patronising the country rustics around him, and probably even more morose than Jaques.
So it’s amazing to think it’s taken 36 years to see it again! And it was well worth the wait. For anyone new to the Oxford Shakespeare Company – where have you been the last ten years? You’ve missed some extraordinary shows. Set in the gardens of Wadham College Oxford, with your picnic and glass of Pimm’s, watching innovative and frequently hilarious productions of Shakespeare favourites (although not exclusively – their Importance of Being Earnest was about as good as it gets), it’s a huge privilege to return every year, and we always set aside two or three Saturdays in the summer in the hope that at least one of them will be warm and sunny – as indeed it was last Saturday afternoon.
As You Like It is one of those Shakespeare comedies where tragedy and division lead to happiness and unity, resolved by one of those classic “let’s all eight of us get married” endings. The route to marriage includes having a girl dressed as a boy, being wooed by a boy as though she were a girl even though he thinks he’s a boy (but she is a boy of course – confused yet?) Given that in Shakespeare’s day there’d have been no women on stage anyway, just try and count the number of in-jokes he’s setting up. To add to this, we have an actor playing Audrey – and yes, I’d have to admit she wouldn’t be my type; and an actress playing Oliver Martext and Le Beau, although this time they are actually transformed into the female characters Olivia Martext and La Belle. I did wonder with a name like that if she was going to break into a funky rendition of Lady Marmalade – but no, obviously it was considered too out of character. You’ve also got brother set against brother – twice; and a choice of sideline commentators such as the rustic Corin or the ex-courtier Jaques. Indeed, all human life is there.
The first twenty five minutes or so are played in one part of the garden, where we all sat on rugs and watched the events unfold in the usurper Duke Frederick’s court; and once he has banished Rosalind (and Celia goes along for the ride) we up sticks and move to the seated “stage” area (having of course already bags’d one’s seats on arrival) to watch the story continue in the Forest of Arden. This two locations game works really well and gives you the audience a real sense of change of location, which is handy in a production where so many roles are doubled (or indeed trebled) up, as you can associate different roles with different stage areas. Entering the forest was accompanied by a change in costume styles too, those beautiful and handsome clothes worn at court being replaced by anything from rags to a bad day at H&M. Actually, all the costumes are brilliant throughout. Mrs Chrisparkle and I particularly relished Celia’s transformation from elegant ballroom dress, all sash and plunging neckline, to bumpkin floral shift and hippy wellies.
As it’s an Oxford Shakespeare Company production, it’s played for laughs wherever possible, but this isn’t as LOL as some of their recent shows – it just isn’t That Sort Of Play. You can’t laugh at Jaques in the way you can at Malvolio. You haven’t got partner-swapping like you have in Midsummer Night’s Dream. There isn’t a whole heap of double-crossing going on like in Merry Wives. It’s much more character driven, and the harsh realities of life seem a little more ominous in this play. Nevertheless, Rebecca Tanwen and Charlotte Hamblin as Rosalind and Celia make a terrific comic double act, both of them entranced with their own love-at-first-sight to the hilarious disdain of the other, expressing a host of emotions with very funny facial expressions. The light heartedness when Rosalind falls for Orlando makes an excellent, grim contrast to the imminent sudden chill when David Shelley’s Duke Frederick hears about Orlando’s heritage; a superb change of atmosphere brought about by Mr Shelley’s authoritative performance.
I also enjoyed how they played with the pronunciation of “Rosalind”, specifically that difficult last syllable. My Oxford tutor (yes, I used to have one of those) always used to say on this subject, and regarding this play: “I do not find it in my mind to say wind, I find it in my mind to say wind”. Personally, I never thought that was particularly helpful. Perhaps I should explain that for the first part of that sentence you use a short “i” and for the second, a long “i”. No, I agree, I still don’t think it helps. Clearly mispronunciation of find, mind, and wind, not to mention Rosalind, had them rolling in the aisles four hundred years ago.
If I do have a criticism of the production, it would be that some of the cuts are a little unfortunate. One of my favourite speeches in the play, Touchstone’s analysis of rhetoric, with the Retort Courteous, the Quip Modest and the Reply Churlish, and how peace can reign with sensible use of “if”, is missing. “Your If is the only peacemaker: much virtue in If”, says Touchstone, identifying the theme of compromise in the play. I think that was a missed opportunity. Of course, there have to be cuts, otherwise having eight actors play upwards of twenty-five people is never going to work. We lost some characters; Madame La Belle delivered some of the lines originally spoken by Charles the wrestler; Jaques missed out on gathering people round and saying “Tis a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle” and a few other scenes were shifted around. Old retainer Adam accompanying Orlando on his journey to the forest takes place during the court scenes in this production, rather than later on in Arden as Shakespeare had it; and actually that change works very well. But then, if you objected to these changes because you’re that much of a Shakespeare purist, an Oxford garden production possibly might not be for you.
Not only do the cast exhibit boundless energy, but they also have a great sensitivity to, and understanding of the motivations and personalities of the characters. For example, the shocked, grieved reaction by Rebecca Tanwen’s Rosalind at her treatment by the Duke her uncle is tangible and very moving. Later on, she really gets into the part of Ganymede – truly the blueprint for Blackadder’s “Bob” – and becomes a very fetching tomboy; no wonder Orlando goes along with the wooing game. Charlotte Hamblin expresses all Celia’s qualities of honour and loyalty as she sticks with Rosalind through the banishment, and then gives us a marvellous long-suffering act of a fish out of water, as she pretends to be Aliena, adopting a “don’t you know who I am” tone on arrival in the forest, then putting up with Ganymede’s impetuosities, and playing a splendidly irritated second fiddle until Oliver arrives on the scene.
David Alwyn (excellent here last year in The Merry Wives of Windsor, sadly no puppets for him to play with this year) puts in another superb performance as Orlando, the thoroughly decent, honest and much wronged younger brother of the selfish and power-hungry Oliver. He gives a great impression of a soppy lovelorn when pining for his beloved Rosa-Rosa-Rosa-Rosa-Rosalind (you’ll have to see the show to get that joke), but also brings out Orlando’s heroic nature very successfully, with his magnanimity in wrestling victory and his generous behaviour toward the frail servant. Completing the courtly foursome is Alexander McWilliam (also an OSC stalwart, with his hilarious interpretation of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream two years ago) playing three roles, although it feels like four characters; portraying the early Oliver as a brutal bully with a heart of ice who then transforms into the later Oliver bearing the cheeriest of smiles and bravely going weak-at-the-knees at the sight of Celia. He’s also Charles the wrestler (clearly putting in extra time at the gym) and, most significantly, the enigmatic character of Jaques. My memory of Emrys James’ performance as Jaques in that 1978 RSC production is that he was totally grumpy and bad tempered throughout. Mr McWilliam’s performance is superbly subtle – the text describes the character as melancholy and that’s precisely how he comes across: reserved, reflective, world-weary but not bitter, with an unsentimental grip on reality shown nowhere better than with the famous Seven Ages of Man speech. It’s a performance of so many facets that you simply can’t categorise it. With a role that’s easy to caricature, this Jaques is a real, complex person.
David Shelley is very convincing as both Dukes, the usurper at court and the genuine one in the forest, where he is a generous and jovial sort, dispensing wisdom and shelter where it’s needed; and he’s also a very entertaining, if slightly eccentric, old shepherd Corin. George Haynes plays Silvius as a charmless teenager – Shakespeare missed a trick by not thinking of “whatever” as a retort; he’s also delightful – I think that’s the word – as the simpering but not to be underestimated Audrey, who I would guess will have many surprises for Touchstone on their wedding night. There’s a terrific performance by Rosalind Steele, first as Madame La Belle who forcefully reminded me of the young Penelope Keith, and then as the rather scary Phoebe, wanting no dalliance with the useless Silvius and lolloping in love after Ganymede, but portraying genuine heartache when she discovers that there really could never be a future for the two of them. And Rob Witcomb (yet a third OSC alumnus, a brilliant Doctor Caius in Merry Wives) gives us a very sophisticated and intelligent Touchstone – not that that stops him from being ravaged with lipstick kisses, of course – and a sad and moving portrayal of the seventh age of man in the form of Adam.
Add to all that music, dancing, letters in trees, wrestling, and a real live barbecue, and you’ve got another great OSC show. It’s on until the 15th August and I unhesitatingly recommend it to you!
P. S. I had to adopt my grumpy tone with a few French students (I presume they were students) constantly muttering away throughout the whole play. The first glance didn’t shut them up, nor did the second; and the third, my usually successful “lingering look” barely registered. So I was forced to turn round and say “will you be quiet please”, and they looked at me as if I was spoiling the play for them. They stayed quiet for about three minutes. I can only presume that one was translating for the others as the play progressed. “Qu’est-ce que c’est? Une femme habillée comme un homme? Nom d’un nom d’un nom! Sacré Bleu! Et maintenant? Un homme habillé comme une femme? Oh mon Dieu! Boff, des Anglais….”
The splendid photographs of the production are by Ben Galpin of Malvolio Media.