Although Shakespeare lived and worked in London for much of his adult life, the forest of his childhood in Stratford-upon-Avon haunted his imagination. Forests are an important part of his dramatic world as places of escapism, flirtation, love, but also danger and violence. Calixto Bieito’s new work Forests – part of the World Shakespeare Festival – has a promising concept, exploring the use of the forest setting in the canon, examining with the richness of its symbolism.
The piece has two distinct phrases which represent the opposing characteristics of Shakespeare’s green landscapes. Firstly we enter the joyous, liberating and love-filled forest. The stark set – one large tree housed in a square black bin-lined container – is bathed in the warm and bright glow of Tim Mitchell’s lighting design. The actors enter formerly dressed in suits, jackets, high heels, but gradually strip these away, conveying a sense of freedom. Snippets of As You Like It and Twelfth Night, amongst other plays, create a world of lovers interacting, a sense of playful community. This is a fun and stimulating place to be in, although all the exuberant running and chasing around the stage eventually becomes wearying.
In the second phrase all of this changes: in an impressive set-piece the tree is raised up and the box which contains it is pulled apart by the cast in a manic frenzy to reveal a large mound of earth which covers the stage. The forest becomes a dangerous place, one which echoes with Shakespeare’s darker passages, with lines from King Lear, Othello and Timon of Athens.
In this way, Bieito does successfully convey the contrasting worlds of Shakespeare’s forest settings: the imagery is effective as are the textual choices. Cutting Shakespeare’s verse out of context allows us to hear it anew; Richard II’s rallying reaction to the threat of civil war on English soil becomes Roser Cami’s angry response to a murky and violent world. Yet the reshaping of text might have gone far further. Entirely stripped of context, the most famous speeches can function a little like an emotional jukebox; and though delivered with skill by an impressive cast – in both Catalan and English – their intensity can be alienating rather than affecting.
The production’s gendering is also problematic. Much of the violence in Shakespeare’s forest worlds is threatened or perpetrated by men against women: Lavinia’s rape and mutilation in Titus Andronicus is perhaps the most extreme example. Yet in Bieito’s repurposing, the majority of extreme violence is female against female. Katy Stephens strips a frightened Cami and gags the singer-songwriter Maika Makovki, who accompanies much of the production. In a mixed gender production, only Cami’s full-scale nudity occupies significant stage time – with a crude play on the word ‘bush’ at one point. There is not a clear enough meaning or aesthetic attached to these choices with the result of making this female aggression and nudity feel gratuitous.
Perhaps searching for a dramatic climax, Bieito widens his lens, patching together Shakespeare’s language of mortality and loss. This move away from forests, from landscapes of any kind, leaves the potentially exciting themes of the forest setting – about climate change, urban and rural living, man as animal – feeling underexplored. Though the production is studded with moments of beauty, this loss of focus, this over-reaching, works against it.