AS YOU LIKE IT, directed by BEATRIZ BATARDA for ARENA ENSEMBLE, at TEATRO CARLOS ALBERTO, PORTO, PORTUGAL. Seen on 22nd February 2014.
Reviewed by Miguel Ramalhete Gomes
Having premiered at roughly the same time as Nuno Cardoso’s highly political Coriolanus, Beatriz Batarda’s production of As You Like It for Arena Ensemble was often coupled with it in Portuguese news pieces as part of an opening salvo to Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary. Like Cardoso, Batarda highlighted the politics of her own production in interviews: issues of class, gender and ageism were going to be an integral part of the production, while the story of the play, and especially the escape to the forest, was supposed to parallel two moments in Portuguese history: the revolution of 25 April 1974, which rid Portugal of its dictatorship, while encouraging a greater interaction between the urban population and the peasant classes; and the contemporary moment of austerity and massive emigration. Several carnations, featured prominently on the cover of the programme and held high by the actress playing Rosalind at the end of the play, referenced the best-known symbol for what is often called the “Carnation Revolution”, while aiming to reconnect the present moment with the hope characteristic of those revolutionary years.
The production practically sold out and appears to have been well received, although surprisingly no actual reviews of the performance came out in the main cultural press. The success of the production was most probably also a result of the cultural capital of Shakespeare’s name and anniversary, as well as of the popularity of some of the actors, among whom were Nuno Lopes (as Orlando), a well-known cinema and television actor, and Bruno Nogueira (playing Jaques), an even better-known comedian. This success may also be attributed to more directorial reasons. Batarda seems to have avoided imposing any sort of noticeable conceptual frame, so that not only did the translation opt for immediacy of effect, but the simple sets and conventional ensemble work also transmitted an impression of plainness and immediacy associated with the attractive, though ultimately untenable, notion of a “straight” reading.
Arguably, the first sign of weakness in the production was this attempt to erase the vestiges of the director from the final result. Individual actresses, such as Luísa Cruz (playing Touchstone) and Sara Carinhas (as Celia), pulled off convincing and entertaining performances, but this did not extend to the remainder of the ensemble, which often seemed only minimally directed. The costumes, characterised by dark yet strong colours, were visually striking, especially before Rosalind and Celia cross-dressed; on the other hand, the sets, consisting of rectangular wooden structures sometimes covered in cloth and allowing one to see the back of the theatre, served no perceivable function, except once, when Orlando was meant to fight Charles, the wrestler. The fight was allocated to the back of the stage, partially obstructed from view by the covered structures. Charles, already a minor character, was never seen and one only glimpsed Orlando as he was occasionally thrown into sight of the spectators, thereby suggesting a fight with a mighty opponent. The simplicity of the sets often suggested amateur theatre or child play, to which also contributed some camp-fire-like musical moments, accompanied by a guitar or an accordion. Nevertheless, this potentially energizing suggestion was never fully realised, and the production often seemed to linger aimlessly, suggesting amateurishness rather than a metatheatrical play with characteristics associated with amateur theatre. A revealing limitation was the way in which Bruno Nogueira was cast as Jaques. A well-known comedian, Nogueira usually plays the role of the slightly melancholic ironist experienced in the ways of the world, who, whenever necessary, shows that his heart is after all in the right place. This description suggests an ideal fit between actor and character. Yet, as with many comedians who live inside their personas and never break character, Nogueira mostly played himself and hardly ever allowed spectators to have a glimpse of Jaques behind this barrier. Probably because of Nogueira’s popularity, however, this did not seem to be perceived as a weakness by the audience.
The politics of the production, which Batarda insisted on among the press, had a hard time coming through, I would argue. The gender politics of the play were mostly emptied of any subversiveness. Some press announcements had chosen to focus on the action of fleeing a corrupt and usurping ruler to found a new, purer community in the forest, in an alleged echo of the 1974 revolution (whereas, in fact, a more adequate analogy would have been the clandestine, mostly communist resistance operating before 1974). Press announcements included a suggestion that this might also apply nowadays – one tabloid went as far as to announce that Batarda was bashing “the politicians”. Yet, for all this possibly misleading talk of politics, the production was surprisingly tame. Almost everything, politically speaking, needed to be drawn from the story of the play by spectators, rather than from the staging. The act of holding high the carnation at the end was perhaps the main obvious signal towards the present moment and felt rather like a strained coda. It aligned the pastoral world of the play with an idealised nostalgia for the 1974 “Carnation Revolution”. Whereas this might have constituted a worthwhile critique of the role of nostalgia today as an ineffective and dreamy response to the harsh realities of Portugal under austerity, the gesture was too affirmative on its own, as well as too unrelated to the rest of the play, to provide this critique, seeming rather to support just such a flight into hope for hope’s sake. This ultimately empty appeal to some form of renewal was vague enough to please an audience which seemed more interested in being entertained and edified rather than confronted.