As You Like It by William Shakespeare, directed by Kate Saxon for Shared Experience / Theatre by the Lake, at Oxford Playhouse, 18 November 2017
Reviewed by Peter Malin
References to the play are to William Shakespeare, As You Like It, ed. by Alan Brissenden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)
Where to start? With a confession, perhaps: As You Like It is my least favourite of Shakespeare’s mature comedies. It’s partly the Forest of Arden, I think; Renaissance pastoral is a genre so artificial and archaic that its deadening embrace has squeezed the dramatic life out of many a production of this play and The Winter’s Tale, whether represented as rustic realism or merely a state of mind. Here, Arden was a headache-inducing, Technicolor Neverland, a slowed-down disco of rainbow colours, swamping the play in a paint-by-numbers dreamscape. The forest was sparsely furnished – I use the verb advisedly – with a leafless Beckettian tree and a traditional red telephone-box, on both of which characters chose to perch with varying degrees of conviction. The main purpose of the phone-box, fashionably converted into a library, was to save on actors by providing a convenient way for Jaques de Boys to deliver his deus-ex-machina message about the Duke’s religious conversion via a quick call. His face was projected inside the box like a sinister Cheshire Cat, while his amplified, echoing voice rendered his startling news incomprehensible – a fate that had also befallen the disembodied tones of Hymen a few minutes earlier. This Arden also encompassed a couple of functional, glossy white benches, a flock of pop-up tents in which the country copulatives could – well – copulate, and an unlikely water-cooler left as a visual reminder of Duke Frederick’s steel-walled, corporate boardroom. Ghostly white images of birds, baa-lambs, deer and blossoming flowers were projected at apparently random moments on the colour-drenched cyclorama. Matters were not redeemed by the unpleasant musical settings of some of Shakespeare’s most exquisite songs. Yes, you have correctly guessed that I didn’t like this production. The programme’s hopeful description of Arden as ‘the land of evocative beauty’ should have been reported under the Trades Descriptions Act.
While I am prepared to admit that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I am less convinced that understandable Shakespeare is in the ear of the hearer. If I hadn’t known this play really well, I would have been utterly baffled by what was going on, thanks to some unforgivably poor speaking. It would be unfair to name the guiltiest actors; suffice it to say that a couple of the men, with their gabbling and imprecise diction, might just as well have been talking in Greek. Did their training not suggest to them how spoken language makes meaning through the particular sound qualities of vowels and consonants; through the judicious spacing between words and phrases; through the emphasis on keywords and the pointing of parallels and antitheses; and through the emotional colour with which these linguistic units are invested? Clearly not. The only compensation for such shoddy enunciation and phrasing was that it meant we didn’t have to pretend to understand, let alone laugh at, the play’s tedious, moribund jokes about horns and motley.
‘It is 2017,’ stated the programme, and while this was feasible in the charcoal-grey suits of Duke Frederick and his henchmen it was less convincing in the awkward staging of the wrestling match across the boardroom table. Arden’s sheep-farming community seemed patronisingly stuck in a rural time-warp, while the banished Duke’s severely depleted court sported pseudo-Middle-Eastern robes from some 1960s hippy commune. The token use of the odd mobile phone did nothing to render these lazy updatings anything more than superficial stereotypes. The character descriptions given in the cast list were oddly eclectic, with Rosalind designated in traditional Shakespearean fashion as ‘daughter to the usurped Duke Senior’ and Jaques as ‘previously Culture Secretary to Duke Senior’. The second of these was totally unreadable in the production, though not as much so as characterising the hapless Sir Oliver Martext, who issued dazed from a tent in nothing but vest and underpants, as ‘a free-thinking spiritualist’. Helpful as these back-stories may have been to the actors in moulding their performances, they were of no use whatsoever to the audience. In any case, not everyone buys or reads a programme.
The greatness of As You Like It lies in the character of Rosalind, and to some extent in her temperamentally polar opposite, Jaques. The latter, though, is in plot terms an entirely dispensable character, whose removal from the play would not affect the action in the slightest. To be honest, he might just as well have been cut from this production, since Richard Keightley, like the play’s other Jaques, did little more than phone in his performance. ‘The melancholy Jaques’ (2.1.26) was once the play’s star part, but it is a long time since I have seen an interpretation to match those of vintage RSC actors like Alan Howard (1968), Richard Pasco (1973), Derek Godfrey (1980) or Alan Rickman (1985). If you’re not going to give him all you’ve got, you might as well get rid of him altogether and transfer ‘Seven Ages’ to another character.
Rosalind, thank goodness, was in much safer hands, given a glowing and sensitive performance by Jessica Hayles, who deserves the opportunity to revisit the role in a better production. She was one of the few actors to prioritise emotional truth over coy comedy, and was aware that the greatest poetry can be found in prose as well as in verse: ‘O coz, […] that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love’ (4.1.188-89); ‘I’ll tell thee, Aliena, I cannot be out of the sight of Orlando’ (4.1.198-99). The best As You Like It I have seen was a student production directed by Elijah Moshinsky in 1972, also at Oxford Playhouse, in which the forest scenes between Rosalind and Orlando (Rosie Kerslake and David Snodin) veered close to tragedy. However much you long for the one you have fallen in love with, how can you risk opening up your soul to them, exposing the reality of your feelings in the face of possible disappointment or rejection? These challenging scenes, in that production, were as gripping and moving as I have ever seen them. I am sure Hayles could have achieved the same level of emotional pain and vulnerability given a more competent Orlando, here little more than a personable cipher. She was, though, provided with effective deflationary support by Layo-Christina Akinlude’s lively Celia, though she too occasionally succumbed to the gabbling disease which had infected much of the cast.
Jessica Hayles was not the only performer deserving of a better production, and there was some sprightly doubling and trebling of roles. Matthew Mellalieu did his best with a younger-than-usual Old Adam and with the impossible Touchstone, the latter apparently an ‘independent political candidate, a joker’ – representing the Monster Raving Loony Party, perhaps. Matthew Darcy made an impact both as Oliver and as a resolutely masculine, Little Bo-Peep style Audrey, but his Amiens lacked a convincing social context in which to operate. Adam Buchanan was a spirited, touching, clearly-spoken Silvius, but couldn’t save the misguided and embarrassing conception of Martext. Best of all the supporting cast was Alex Parry as a chilling, East End Duke Frederick; his banished, RP-accented brother; and a solid Yorkshire Corin, bringing to enjoyable life an often tiresome role. It was just a shame that, as the good Duke, he was lumbered with putting across the dreadful song settings.
The play’s text was severely cut, which was something of a relief, and I had no problem with its beginning at Oliver’s line, ‘Know you where you are, sir?’ (1.1.138), when he finds his brother in the Duke’s boardroom. The only significant role that disappeared was that of William, which was no great loss. Yet the textual editing, which should have speeded up the action, was counteracted by an often funereal pace in which the performative energy-levels dropped to the torpid. The production originated at Keswick’s delightful Theatre by the Lake, on the shores of Derwentwater, and missed a trick, I think, by not reimagining Arden in the Lake District’s fells and woods, creating recognisable hill-farmers with a degree of socio-economic reality. Oh well, at least some people enjoyed the show: Tim Hughes in the Oxford Times thought it an ‘ideal introduction to Shakespeare for the novice or pupil and a loveable twist on a classic for the scholar’. I wish!
 Shared Experience, As You Like It, dir. Kate Saxon, 2017, programme, p. 4. All subsequent programme references are also to p. 4.
 Moshinsky’s production, for the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company, had a fine cast throughout, including Brian Gilbert as Jaques, Mel Smith as Touchstone and Peter Wight as Oliver, all of whom subsequently carved out successful acting and/or directing careers.
 Tim Hughes, ‘A Camp and Playful Romp through Arden’, Oxford Times, 16 November 2017.