We begin in Duke Frederick’s court. A regimented office with Butlins-like uniforms, and a close-cropped bonsai tree on each desk. Orlando is relegated to cleaning work by his precise and poisonous brother Oliver – a polo-shirted product of Silicon Valley. The gentle satire of an artificial Google-like ‘blue-sky thinking’ workplace – game-like work noises (with some bird noises and whirring machinery in the mix, I believe), printers that spit out coloured paper, and organised fun in the form of Mexican wrestling – but where the bosses call all the shots, seems apt. Nowadays, who are the fathers and elder brothers that hold such sway over us as Oliver does over Orlando or Duke Frederick over Celia and Rosalind but our employers?
When we disappear into the forest of Arden, the beginning comes with us, in a breathtaking and utterly surprising transformation. Arden is a liminal space, where plots tangle and fantasies play out, and the reshuffled text emphasizes the randomness, the happenstance, the twist and the tangle of the various pairs of lovers that draw close to one another in this bleak wood. But because aspects of the workplace accompany the transition into the pastoral (I’m am deliberately hedging so as not to ruin a real design coup from Lizzie Clachan) the economic realities of the shared world constantly assert themselves. Corin does not shear the fleeces that he grazes. Touchstone follows Celia into the forest, fearing she has no money. Adam follows Orlando into the forest giving his young master money from his own pocket. Orlando threatens a bunch of threadbare courtiers with a knife for an apple. This is no pleasant village green, and with such meaty (almost revolutionary) emphasis some things strike oddly. The change in Oliver, for instance, seems to come too easily – the irony of Orlando’s second successful wrestling match (when Oliver would have happily seen him dead in the first) doesn’t seem enough to let the tyrant elder brother off the hook. So too the restitution of the exiled Duke’s central place at the end of the drama – because the first act taught us to be highly suspicious of these figures.
If these seem like strange sticking points in a review of As You Like It, it is because this is a strange production. The design, the music, the costumes and the performances seem to pull in very different directions – the performances and costumes for the most part more dextrous and fun than the more thoughtful and moody design and music – including a forest soundscape from the production’s twelve-strong choir.
Rosalie Craig and Joe Bannister both put in such witty performances but crucially there is absolutely no chemistry between their Rosalind and Orlando, where the centre of the play needs to be buoyed up by their playfulness, their magnetism. Patsy Ferran, on the other hand, steals the show as Celia, making us fall in love again and again through her eyes – with Rosalind, with the idea of breeches, with Ganymede, and, in the work of a single look, with Oliver. We only bear Touchstone, in truth, because Celia admits a sneaking fondness for him.
Ferran aside it is the smaller roles that amuse here – Jay Saighal’s Le Beau and Leon Annor’s wrestler in the first act, and Alan Williams’ Corin, Ken Nwosu’s Silvius and Ekow Quartey’s Williams in the forest – all of whom win the audience over in the play’s sketch-like scenes. But one of the real joys of Polly Findlay’s The Merchant of Venice at the RSC this year was the ability to combine a wide range of styles – both comic and tragic – and find a dramatic language that could hold them all in pleasing suspension for two hours. Here, Paul Chahidi’s depressive Jacques stands out like a sore thumb, because everyone else on both sets is forced to the front of the stage, facing directly out, eyes wide, brows raised, trying to make us laugh.
Findlay made a heavy play light at the RSC, twisting and dangerous as a stiletto dancing on a bare chest, but the overwhelming sense with this As You Like It is that this play of many clowns, lovers and looks – this airy thing – has been thrown to the mat and pinned.