Friday 13 November 2015

As You Like It – National Theatre, London

[seen 09/11/15]

I’m not sure I really *got* Polly Findlay and Liz Clachan’s As You Like It. [and I certainly didn’t enjoy writing this review one bit.] I think maybe by the end I’d warmed to it, or got into it; or maybe it’s that the ending is yet another gear change in a production of gear-changes, and the final one was the most readily comprehensible.

It opens, wittily, in at sort of modern-but-eighties stock brokers. “As You Like I.T.” perhaps. Or Enron van Hove – a mash-up of Goold’s Prebble with the latter’s Roman Tragedies. As an opening setting it’s fine. It gets the job done. The “wrestling match” is the first time it really comes alive and they could probably cut everything before that, since it’s all set-up that gets reiterated upteen further times anyway. Maybe keep the scene before with Orlando’s brother telling Charles the Wrestler that he’s welcome to do Orlando in, but otherwise bin it. (Let’s be honest, it’s a shit set-up: woman fancies bloke she sees at wrestling match; bloke and woman and woman’s mate get thrown out of the place they are in after wrestling match. They fuck off to a forest...)

The opening set is doubtless saying something quite obvious about how we might not like capitalism terribly much at the moment. Then...

[VERY STAGING-SPOILER ALERT – not that everyone else hasn’t already spoilered it already...]

...the low back wall and ceiling of the brokers’ office lifts into the flies, AND DRAGS ALL THE CHAIRS AND DESKS WITH IT. It is proper bloody fantastic. Good. The net result is that the Forest of Arden looks like Cornelia Parker’s s Cold Dark Matter meeting Gisele Vienne’s This is How You Will Disappear.

And, well, THE REST OF A PLAY IS SET IN THE LANDSCAPE MADE OUT OF WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A STOCK MARKET GOES KAPUT. DID ANYONE REALLY NEED THIS EXPLAINING? [But if this the intention, I kinda of wish it had been more thoroughly or legibly pursued in the production itself.]

So, yes, the set is very good as an artwork or installation. The lighting of it (Jon Clark) is more various. It looks bloody wonderful in its night-time aspect, with cold moonlight filtering through the smoke and branches. In its various daylight aspects – and I think we get several different times of day, and sorts of daylight across the play – it varies. The best are good, but the worst almost have the effect of creating a sort of jagged camouflage of shadows and bright light in both backdrop and foreground, so that actors’ whole bodies seem to blend suddenly into the shards of shadows. It’s quite and interesting effect, but it does take some getting used to/tuning in to while trying to work out what you’re meant to be looking at.

But the main thing that takes some tuning in to is the wealth and variety of acting styles on display. I *loved* Joe Hill-Gibbins’s Measure For Measure for the way that each character quite rightly seemed to occupy their own walk of life, both theatrically and somehow *locally*. Here it seems a bit less certain than that. There are many different styles, but several of them are styles of which I am not fond. I’m afraid I didn’t warm to Joe Bannister’s Orlando one bit. I mean, yes, As You Like It is a comedy, but Bannister’s affable performance made Rosalind’s love-at-first-sight for him fully incomprehensible, then ongoingly mystifying, and, well, I dunno, he was kind of a nice-but-dim posh boy with a loud voice. A kind of background figure from a Richard Curtis film. In a jumper. God knows. I sure the actor is a nice bloke and a lot more dynamic in real life, but on stage we were asked for a lot of investment for no discernible return.

Rosalie Craig’s Rosalind was apparently a late(?) substitution for Andrea Riseborough. And I kind of wish I hadn’t known that. Because I spent a bunch of time wondering what that meant, and why, and how that would have changed the production and so on. Craig, I think, is actually one of the better things in this production, acting-wise. Possibly. I mean, she’s doing something entirely different to anything I’ve seen anyone do with Shakespeare before, which is to treat it precisely as if it is a musical theatre script. (Ok, I might have thought this partly because I know she also does musicals very successfully, but it’s true.) Now, you might think this means I thought she was bad. But I absolutely promise it doesn’t mean that. Craig is putting in a performance that would be 100% expected in thousands of other contexts, and, moreover, is doing it very well. She’s totally on top of the lines. You completely see what her character’s about. She has a much better, more robust, chippy take on Rosalind’s “Ganymede” than many actors in the role (and without panto thigh-slapping, thank Christ). But, yes, sometimes when she has a real run up at a long sentence, it sounds like we should expect a song to strike up when the line ends. But that’s not really a bad way of doing Shakespeare. It’s kind of fun. It gets us though. At the other end of the good things, Alan Williams, as the morose (and partly made-up/other-character(s?) folded-in) shepherd Corin, inhabits a kind of Beckettian universe where taking all day with one line would seem perfectly ok. I reckon I could have taken even more long pauses and disgusted silences. Patsy Ferran plays Celia – as Maddy Costa (literally the same cardigans, I think) – and is probably the best at making Shakespeare’s language her own. No one else in this production really holds a candle to her. And that sort of feels like a problem too.

But, well, here’s the real thing, I saw this a week after press night, and a week and a half after my friend and colleague Holger Syme saw it in preview. And, well, Holger and I had disagreed about Measure For Measure (or rather, I probably saw all his points, but still loved it anyway), but he said one thing that I just couldn’t shake out of my head, and it was this:

“Why can’t English actors move at the same time that they’re speaking?”

And that’s it. Once you’ve heard that, you’re fucked. Look at them. Standing there, standing still and speaking. Occasionally in this production they have a bit of a stab at sidling while they talk. Maybe. But mostly it feels like there’s a lot of striding or strolling to the next stop, so they can say their next thing. Now, Obviously I’m as English as the next person, and I did quite like this production by the end, but it was also hard to drown out the fact that THIS IS A SHOW THAT DIVIDES OPINION!

Up to this point, I haven’t read any of the reviews. But, my God, even unread reviews don’t half make a lot of noise.

I shall now go and read some of them.

Holger Syme – “Visual magic; artistic bankruptcy” is harsher and more strict than I’d be, but it’s a brilliant review. (By a real German, Michael)

Matt Trueman: “It is, in short, one for the history books” – if history begins in 2010 (or is exclusively English.)

Michael Billington: “Our march towards a Germanic directors’ theatre continues apace.” – if you’ve only seen half a dozen shows by “Germanic” directors in the last decade and have no idea what any of them were doing or why, this probably seems true.

Susannah Clapp: “not as it has been seen before. Polly Findlay has blown winter winds through the Forest of Arden...” – like, for example, Sam Mendes’s properly dreadful Old Vic production did in 2010.

Quentin Letts: not read – if we start actually reading his ridiculous reviews it’d be like his opinion mattered, which it simply doesn't.

So: in short, I don’t think the performances gelled. Not with each other, nor fully with the play, or the set. It feels like you could take the set out and replace it with trees and you’d have quite a traditional version of AYLI, albeit with a more interesting Rosalind. (Somehow, Celia’s been interesting for longer hasn’t she? Because fewer lines?)  So I don’t get the reactionary grumbling about the set *spoiling* the play.  It doesn’t.

Perhaps the reason this production maybe feels annoying (when it does, if it does) is because it feels like there’s all sorts of good thinking here, but it hasn’t been allowed to go far enough. The ideas feel hampered by the fact they’re still being railroaded by the the play. Intellectual energy has been diverted from making ideas communicate and flow to simple stage-problem solving.

I can’t ever hear a forest sound-scape made by the actors without thinking of Excalibur by Bad News (from about 3.30. “Flap flap flap flap...”). Could everyone just agree not to do those? (In truth, I’ve never liked them, but post- The Encounter, I think the world has categorically moved on.)

All that said, I quite liked it. It’s not the revolution it’s being painted as in some quarters, nor is it the sacrilege others have claimed. It’s a modern British production with some uneven acting, some lighting that didn’t really work for me, but a nice enough spirit (even if all the leads are unnecessarily white).

But, like I say, when lit right, what a gorgeous thing to look at:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Patsy Ferran is brilliant and charismatic but everyone else is acting in a student production, or rather, several student productions. The whole thing is sexless, tonally weird, irritating (wished more than once the "forest" could fuck off so I could hear the lines) and at times verging on self-parody (Seven Ages of Man etc.). Also seemingly endless. And sorry but what does this play have to say about late capitalism again? Right.