It’s a Rural Charm in the Country. As You Like It, Courtyard theatre. April 18 Stratford upon Avon.

As anyone who has talked Shakespeare with me knows, the Histories at the RSC over the last two years or so have been a real highlight in my theatre world. For myself as with many others, members of the ensemble became familiar faces. It was with a light heart I discovered it worked both ways, and after hanging around enough in Stratford it turned out that some of the ensemble spotted mine as a familiar face too.

But that was a whole year ago, surely? True; however I had an enthusiastic outlook about the new ensemble as I sauntered along to see As You Like It. A few folks from the histories would be back including the ever charming Katy Stephens as Rosalind, and the reliably entertaining Forbes Masson as the melancholy Jacques.

The stage was set austerely in black and white and as the play began a cold wind blew in the Hessian dressed Orlando, played by the pleasingly easy on the eye Jonjo O’Neil. In sharp contrast to the enforced poverty of Orlando was the officious Oliver, (Charles Aitken, who played a most outstanding Iago with Frantic Assembly not so long ago) encased in black velvet Jacobean garb. As the early scenes unfold, the court was depicted as a grave and sombre space inhabited by whey faced cretins and despots. Into the hurly burly of deeply unappealing people were a few shining lights. Mariah Gale as Celia was an impassioned and loving character, whilst Touchstone (Richard Katz, always good) was an endearingly demented, gangly architect of anarchy, and of course Rosalind.

Katy Stephens is an accomplished actress. With great confidence and honesty I have seen her take an audience through a whole gamut of emotions. In this context she was no less impressive. Rosalind had a degree of poignancy in the opening scenes which seemed to emanate like a beacon, making us fully aware of the great change that her father’s banishment seemed to have brought. She was like an older sister to Celia, a little more worldly wise and times a touch more jaded, but as the wrestling began both young women vied for the attentions of Orlando, stepping in front of each other and rushing back and forth off stage in order to catch his eye. This was a determined Rosalind, old enough to know some of the vagaries of the world whilst retaining enough sparkle to catch at happiness and joy as and when it appeared.

As the play continues and we inevitably head towards the Forest of Arden, Michael Boyd had not (as one would expect from such a strong director) taken the easy path of pastoral idyll full of post enlightenment shepherds and shepherdesses. No, Arden was a rough world in its own right: wintry, desolate, and bleak. However in comparison to the forbidding nature of the court there was at the heart of Arden a warmth. The camaraderie was noticeably staged in the helping of an injured Lord around the frosty boards. Into this unthawed world strutted Forbes Masson as the melancholy Jacques.

Now there was only one thing about this performance that unsettled me. For one night only, the melancholy Jacques was me. Perhaps I should elaborate. After a recent visit to the Salon, I was sporting a coiffure which boasted rather large flicks at the end. What with it being a Saturday performance the kohl stick had been out in force, and I do believe I had donned one of my favourite second hand velvet jackets. (Yes, keeping it ‘down with the kids’ as always) Imagine my surprise then when old melancholy Jacques appears on stage with big, flicky out hair, a plethora of eyeliner and a velvet jacket. Add to these his penchant for playing the guitar and impersonations (not least that of the whining schoolboy) and I had an epiphany. It was me up there. Worrying.

Still, the momentary likeness aside, Forbes Masson was an excellent Jacques; a frustrated performer singing to no one. He took a self conscious delight in ‘sucking melancholy out of a song like a weasel’ and lived to disagree with others. It was a fine performance and made Jacques positively likeable.

As the play continued of course the melt sets in and gradually the stage began to blossom with poems and epistles, alongside trees and branches edging out of the backdrop. Rosalind in her male garb was beautifully liberated, freer in movement and more confident in speech.

Orlando can often become somewhat annoying at this point, for being really that stupid and not recognizing his apparent beloved, but the tensions between Rosalind and Orlando were beautifully played by Stephens and O’Neil and as their feeling blossomed in time with the trees it was a gentle pleasure to behold.

Geoffrey Freshwater (Or Freshy to a few Shakespeare Geeks) played Corin and it was good to see the rural folk played not as the archetypal agrarian uncivilized, but as rounded individuals facing the hardships of economic crisis. Quite topical really. Corin was a man, unlike the flatterers at court, who earned his living with his hands, and this was graphically shown as after the interval Freshwater skins and chops a rabbit. It took a while for me to work out if it was real, but it was, and this gave an interesting resonance to Touchstone’s comments about the greasy hands of workers and courtiers.

This was a delightful production, sparkling with a slow burning charm and characterized by warm and thoughtful direction and acting.

After the play, in long standing tradition, a visit to the pub was in order. And despite being a year since the histories apparently I was still a familiar face. It’s a good sign.


Popular Posts