Pastoral Passions

Review of As You Like It

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Times Literary Supplement, 3 May 1985 © the estate of eric sams



As its throwaway title tells us, this idyllic play presents no real problems. Yet directors and designers insist on festooning it with symbolic enigmas. That is their entitlement, too, of course; and however jaded the latest novelty may look, we can always rely on the 400-year­old words to keep it fresh. Adrian Noble’s new production, designed by Bob Crowley, is genuinely inventive; and it wisely treats the text with fair  respect. But the exceptions are singularly unhappy. Thus Alan Rickman, the otherwise admirable if mannered Jaques, is made to complain that "so from hour to whore we rot and rot". Such crass corruption calls for public penance. There is no shortage of white sheets, which economically constitute much of the scenery and costume. They start as shrouds for disused ducal furniture; then they spread out to suggest a frost-bound forest, where they also cloak the banished lords, make a fetching playsuit for Rosalind, deck a table, and serve to represent a wedding and some bedding. Heavily bloodstained, they signify a deer-hunt;  vigorously agitated, the winter wind. Their lof­tiest metamorphosis is into a high silk pavilion standing for courtly love, and also providing the players with extra exits and entrances. Im­mense pains have been taken to axe Arden; no trace of a tree remains. When Corin (Colin Douglas) enters, garbed as a shepherd and speaking rural English, he seems to have strayed in from another play.

     This unusual reading of the world's supreme pastoral works effectively enough for sophisticated Shakespeareans, wearily familiar with the well-worn lines and avid for variety; but it audibly baffles the old stagers, the young be­ginners, and the tourist trade, for all of whom Stratford should also cater. I doubt whether anyone was helped by the insistent ver­bal and visual cross-references. Smoke is men­tioned in the text; smoke duly rises from the stage. Time is thoughtfully indicated by a clock, theatrical illusion by a looking-glass. The word "motley" is illustrated by a display of one green and one red glove, held up as examples.

     On occasion, this oddly sombre hybrid of realism and fantasy proves unexpectedly compelling. Andrew Yeats (Amiens) sings well. The much-debated Act V masque comes off rather revealingly; only in such a dream-world could Hymen ever appear to be a denouement. The symbolism of chaos also offers a fair infer­ence about the genesis of the play. Its plot and action, like its famous set speeches, all deal with diversity and disparity; their insistent theme is difference, whether of status, sex, or just opinion. Love alone remains constant; and even that is variegated in the garden of Arden, from the old Adam (touchingly portrayed by Mark Dignam) to the young Eve, alias Rosalind. In that primordial role, Juliet Stevenson is a star in the making. Her velocity sometimes outruns her clarity, expecially in the lighter patter of quick-fire prose; but the gleam and glow of true feeling, expressed in glance and gesture as well as inflection and cadence, are always conspicuous. The excellent Celia of Fiona Shaw has her own complementary humour and charm, never occulted by her bright companion. The Touchstone they take with them on their travels turns out to be Nicky Henson, a droll auguste with dazzling technical skills of miming and timing; the "seventh cause" speech in particular is hilariously choroegraphed for clown and company.

     Here and elsewhere the details threaten to distract and indeed detract from the intended unity. But the production remains integral and mainly successful, in its own rather abstract terms. With Hilton McRae's likeable Orlando as a fitting foil, the love-duels and passages at arms are excitingly evoked, and the teasing hints of sexual ambiguity are the more effective for their comparative restraint.