Thursday 24 June 2010

As You Like It - The Bridge Project / Old Vic

For the most part, I absolutely loathed Sam Mendes’s new production of As You Like It. I mean really loathed. Proper writhe-in-your-seat, grinding your teeth, loathing.

It’s not all a catastrophe. It has got one of my favourite rarely-seen actors Ron Cephas Jones (last seen, by me at any rate, in The Trial of Judas Iscariot at the Almeida in ‘08), although he’s wasted here as Charles the Wrestler. Edward Bennett (of RSC Laertes/substitute Hamlet fame) acquits himself well in the small role of Orlando’s grumpy brother, and Stephen Dillane makes a fine melancholy Jacques. And that really is about it. Maybe some of the minor characters, made to feel all the more minor in this production, aren’t too bad; although Thomas Sadoski’s gurning and bug-eyed Jim Carrey impression of a Touchstone grates like mad. The rest of the thing is just awful.

I don’t have to tell you the plot, do I? Orlando, the son of a deposed duke (or something) wins a wrestling match, then has to leave court, but meets a girl, Rosalind, before he leaves. They fall in love, she then gets exiled as well, or something, and they all spend a load of time buggering about in a forest – Rosalind disguised as a “peevish boy” finding out more about Orlando’s love for her, while they are beset by a bunch of yokel comic turns.

The most obvious problem is that Christian Carmago as Orlando and Juliet Rylance as Rosalind are both utterly dreadful. They are dreadful in different ways, though. Christian Carmago is a total charisma void. He looks great – curly black hair and impossibly high cheekbones – but looking great is no substitute for being watchable when you’ve got that many lines and your story is basically what we’re meant to be taking an interest in. Instead, he overdoes sullen to the point of boredom, but does deliver his lines at various volumes in an attempt to claw back some interest.

Rylance, on the other hand – though visually making a convincing boy – suffers from the exact opposite problem. She just can’t stop acting. Every. Sodding. Line is treated to the same affected, over-projected, musicality that sacrifices nearly all the meaning of what she’s saying to the same one-note, plaintive gush (when she came on at the beginning of The Tempest as Miranda and started doing exactly the same thing, I nearly walked out). The net result, then, is that the burgeoning, ambiguous love between Rosalind and Orlando is reminiscent of someone doing a drama school audition at a sulky mannequin. And this is the romance that is meant to drive the play.

One of the reasons Orlando might be so sulky is Tom Piper’s atrocious set. The thing starts off on a bench in front of a big, black, rough-wooden wall. As a rule I like big walls, but somehow this one was just annoying. Perhaps it was the way it was lit. Perhaps it lacked the courage of its convictions. Perhaps it was the furniture that got liberally distributed in front of it during the blackouts (Blackouts! I know!), but, yes, even As You Like It’s set was infuriating. The maddening wall then rises to reveal a patchy forest, which looks to have been enjoying a good twenty years worth of acid rain. With another big wall at the back. Again, there didn’t seem to be anything technically wrong with it, but for some reason it was just about the most irritating, not to mention ugly, stage design I’ve ever seen. By this point, I was even starting to feel anxious about why I disliked it so very much, but dislike it I did. Maybe part of the problem was the lighting (Paul Pyant) – mostly very dim. Perhaps a contribution to “bringing out the darkness of the play” as Mendes suggests he is doing, somewhere in his flimsy director’s notes.

Actually, the lack of a directorial vision here seemed particularly striking. There really didn’t seem to be a reason that they were doing this play in particular, or that there was any especial reason for why they were doing it the way they were doing it. If anything, this was just a stab at “actors’ theatre” – you know, putting the thing on the stage with not too many gubbins so as to best display the talents of the actors in an established text. Which sort of works fine if you’ve got the actors for it. But this year, Mendes doesn’t.

It is interesting watching them, though. Edward Bennett, who is very good, manages to get a laugh out of a single “no” just by the way he says it. To someone who doesn’t really know the first thing about acting (me), it seems remarkable that someone can hit a monosyllable with such precision as to make it funny and at the same time seem to acquire a bit more sympathy for and understanding of their character from the audience, while at the same time, and under the same director, someone else can gabble their way through reams of lines without once even making an especially compelling case for themselves as a human being, let alone one we care about.

Anyway, the whole thing was largely terrible. Funny about twice, and tedious in the extreme the rest of the time. It was only professional duty that stopped me making a break for it in its interval.

(the Bridge Project continues below)

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