Theater Review: As You Like It, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

As You Like It is my favorite Shakespeare comedy. I don’t know why: perhaps it’s the fairly straightforward plot, or the fact that it’s all about people trying to be happy, or the wonderful language which doesn’t get too obscure, and just exudes enjoyment. It was also the first play I saw at the RSC after I moved to the UK in 2013. (Read my review of that production here, and my interview with Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann – Rosalind and Orlando in that production – here.)

As You Like It is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and it’s one of the plays that gets produced fairly often. I think the fact that the RSC is doing it so soon after its last production is mostly to do with the fact that the RSC is currently in a process of putting on all of the plays in a six-year period (though I think that may have slipped to eight years), and because they started filming their plays and broadcasting them to cinemas only at the end of 2013 with Richard II. So this production will eventually be part of the box set of all the plays on DVD and Blu-Ray.

This year’s production has a lot going for it, but will not please everyone. It’s quite minimalist; there are essentially no sets (though there is a thing that happens at the end). It opens with Orlando (David Ajao) sitting an a swing suspended from the rafters, above a circle of faux grass. The first half hour – the bit where he wrestles, meets Rosalind, and they both get banished – takes place with that grass on stage. When the action moves to Arden Forest, the grass is removed, the house lights come on, and there are announcements over some speakers at the back of the stage. I believe they say “All the actors to the stage,” which is followed by a few more announcements, then “All the world’s a stage,” referring to the famous speech by Jacques that comes in later. The back of the stage lifts up, and you can see the backstage area; the undecorated bit, the brick walls, the ropes tied to the walls; what the actors see when they’re behind the decor.

At the same time, most of the actors come out on stage and some clothes rails are rolled out with costumes. Some of the actors change their costumes, they all mill about, then the costumes are wheeled off and they pick up the play.

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Photos by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC.

The first time I saw the play, I really didn’t get this, but the second time I think I understood what the director, Kimberly Sykes, intended. This is a literal interpretation of “All the world’s a stage,” with the actors showing that they are, indeed, actors, a sort of meta fourth-wall approach to the play. From this moment on, the lighting changes a bit until the end of the play, but the audience is part of the raw theatrical experience, and is almost always illuminated.

Since there are no sets, there are no trees anywhere to be seen. This is a forest, and trees are important in the play. It is either the vertical beams in the theater that are supposed to be the trees, or the audience itself, made up of hundreds of trees. (My suspicion is that it’s the latter, as Orlando pastes a few post-its with notes about Rosalind on different audience members.) All this means that the director’s vision isn’t entirely clear, and this may contribute to the many reviews that were ambivalent about the production.

In any case, looking at it through this point of view, it’s a charming, fast-paced studio play. The lack of sets makes it seem more improvised, and the fantastic Lucy Phelps is radiant as Rosalind, carrying the play throughout (Rosalind has about 20% of the lines in the play).

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(It’s interesting to note that these production photos were shot during the dress rehearsal, but the director changed Rosalind’s costume to simple black trousers with suspenders over a white shirt. This change makes her look a lot more “pixieish,” and I think it works better. Her hair is also slicked back more, giving her a somewhat androgynous David Bowie look.)

There’s lots of audience interaction – see this article, about when I got on stage during one performance – and there’s lots of laughter and fun throughout. Sandy Grierson as Touchstone was marvelous, clowning around to keep the action moving, and Rosalind hops into the audience a few times. Anthony Byrne plays both dukes – Duke Frederick in court, and Duke Senior in the forest – and is wonderful in both roles, the former being powerful and angry, the latter being open and friendly.

273534 As You Like It production photos 2019 2019 Web use

Another quirk in this production is the 50-50 gender splint, which means that Jacques is a woman (Sophie Stanton), and Silvius is Sylvia (Amelia Donkor). This latter change alters some of the text, as Phoebe is in love with a shepherdess instead of a shepherd. I don’t think the Jacques was melancholy enough, but it was interesting to hear Stanton recite the famous “seven ages” speech.

Hats off to the many minor characters who gave their all, notably Charlotte Arrowsmith, a deaf actor, as Audrey, whose signs were interpreted by Tom Dawze as William.

Oh, and there’s that bit at the end with the massive puppet as Hymen, the god of love, giving benediction to the marriages. It’s the only large item on stage for the entire performance, and it is quite jarring. It’s imposing, and it’s really not necessary. I really don’t see why the director chose to close the play with something like this.

Having seen this production twice, I look forward to seeing it again before the run ends in August. If you can make sense of the staging, it’s lots of fun. The time went be very quickly, with never a dull moment. There were songs, lots of laughter, some tears; all in all, exactly what the world is like.

I Trod the Boards at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Last Tuesday, I had a very interesting experience, playing a small but important part in a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of As You Like It. For a brief moment, I was onstage holding two pieces of paper, bearing the letters I and N, as Orlando had four audience members hold up sheets of paper spelling out the name of his love, Rosalind.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. I attended a very special performance of the play; one that was intimate, nearly a command performance, for an audience of just seven people.

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Theater Review: Macbeth, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Given the price of theater tickets, it’s not uncommon to depend on reviews to help make your decisions. In my case, living just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, I get tickets for all the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Shakespeare plays, and many, if not most, of the other plays they perform. (Though after having been disappointed by a number of plays in the Swan Theatre, where they present works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well as recent plays, I’ve decided to sit out a number of them.) Many people trust the opinions of theater critics, perhaps more so than, say, movie or book critics, because of that cost.

But we buy tickets well in advance in order to get good seats, and often all we know about a play is who is directing it; in some cases, we know who the lead actors are. With the current Macbeth, which opened this week, the play was announced (if I recall correctly) last September, with tickets sold starting in October, so we essentially trust the RSC to put on good productions.

And this one is essentially sold out; you may find the occasional return, but the draw of Christopher Eccleston in the lead role and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth was enough to provide the best sales the RSC has had, most likely, since another ex Doctor Who (David Tennant) played Richard II in 2013.

When previews started for Macbeth, I heard some distressing comments from some RSC-loving acquaintances: people who are generally upbeat about all RSC productions were very down on this play. Some greatly disliked it, and others felt it was weak overall. The press hasn’t been very kind; press night was Tuesday, and good reviews are scarce, with the majority coming in – on the standard scale of five stars – at two or three stars. I don’t recall seeing so many negative reviews of an RSC show since the 2016 production of The Two Noble Kinsmen.

At the same time, the National Theatre in London is running its own Macbeth (it turns out the play is on the GCSE curriculum in the UK this year, which explains why there were so many teenagers in school uniforms at the theater last night) which has also been savaged.

Of the four big plays – the others being Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello – this one is my least favorite. I’ve often found it a bit confusing, and it’s a very subtle balance to get a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that work well together. For example, a version with Kenneth Branagh that was broadcast to cinemas in 2013 was visceral and powerful, but I didn’t care for Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth (curiously, another Doctor Who alumnus).

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Shakespeare, Off the Cuff – The New Yorker

The following are recently discovered quotes from interviews that William Shakespeare conducted while promoting various plays, in which he speaks candidly about writing, life, love, and even battling the common cold.

Okay.

“We don’t call it Stratford-Upon-Avon. We just say ‘Stratford.’ I don’t know why anyone would think we’d get so technical. It’s like saying ‘Manhattan of New York.’ ”

He’s right. I live just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, and no-one here calls it by that name, unless they’re reciting their address. However, since there’s a Stratford in London, if you are in the capital, and you say “I’m going to Stratford,” it would be interpreted as that local area.

Curiously, the town is Stratford-upon-Avon, but the district – the larger area around Stratford for administrative and representative purposes – is Stratford-on-Avon.

Oh, and they don’t capitalize the “upon” or “on,” so the New Yorker made a small mistake there.

And you wouldn’t say Manhattan of New York, you’d say, Manhattan-on-Hudson. There are towns with names like that (Hastings-on-Hudson, for example), so the humor kind of falls flat.

Whatevs.

Source: Shakespeare, Off the Cuff | The New Yorker

Theater Review: King Lear, with Ian McKellan, at Minerva Theatre, Chichester

I’ve long been a fan of Ian McKellan – the serious actor, not the Gandalf or X-Men character (though I thought he was great as Gandalf) – and when I heard he was performing King Lear at the small Minerva Theatre in Chichester, I made sure to get tickets. As often with the theater in the UK, this involves taking out a membership to be able to buy tickets before they go on sale to the general public. (We have memberships currently at four theaters, alas.) I was able to get front row seats for this short run of about five weeks.

Expectations have a great influence on how one appreciates an event, and one is at times disappointed, because the ideas one has in the mind exceed the actual event. This was not the case with this production of King Lear.

The theater itself is one of the key elements to this production. Small, with just 280 seats, and with a thrust stage, there are only seven rows, so even if you’re in the last row you’re not far from the stage. This means the actors don’t have to project their voices very much; their tone can be more conversational. Watching this performance from the front row was like having King Lear in one’s living room; albeit a large living room. The stage itself was a circle, about 25 feet in diameter, and about a foot high; this meant that the actors were at the same level as the audience. Covered with a red carpet for the first part of the performance, it was a stark chalky white for the second part.

Lear opens with a brief scene where Gloucester is talking with Kent, and introduces his bastard son Edmund. It then switches to the scene that sets everything in motion, where Lear splits up his kingdom among his three daughters. The characters in modern dress enter with pomp and music, all of them singing in praise for the great King Lear. The wall behind the stage opens to show a huge painting of Lear, and a lectern is installed, where the king speaks. A large desk brought onto the stage for him to use dividing his lands on a map (with scissors).

12 Ian McKellen in the title role of KING LEAR at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo Manuel Harlan DR2 31

(Photos by Manuel Harlan.)

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Thoughts on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus

I first saw the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of Titus Andronicus in July. (Here’s my review.) Last night, I saw the production for the fourth time. Of the three Shakespeare plays currently running in Stratford – the other two are Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) – this is by far the most interesting, and the most accomplished.

This is a staggering production, with extraordinary acting, notably by David Troughton (Titus), Martin Huston (Saturnius), and Hannah Morrish (Lavinia). Last night, I was in the front row, center, by the vom on the right, and had a close up of some of Lavinia’s most moving moments in the play, such as when she is begging Tamora to keep her sons from raping her, then begging to be killed. Or when she comes back on stage and Titus sees her for the first time. Both when speaking and when totally silent (Lavinia has her tongue cut out), Morrish is very impressive.

While all three of these actors are excellent, I think I have been most impressed by Stefan Adegbola as Aaron. He is a conniving, sweet-talking man, yet, in his two big speeches near the end – when captured by the Goths, then when sentenced to a cruel and painful death – shows that he is evil incarnate. I would love to see Adegbola in more roles at the RSC; or in almost anything. He is able to perfectly represent this complex character with grace and charm, but can be as evil as sin when needed.

But Titus is a difficult play. It’s violent and bloody, excessively so. The RSC plays up the gory elements of the production, and, as such, has suffered commercially. The last two times I saw the play – last night, and last Wednesday – the entire upper circle was closed off, and there were plenty of empty seats on the sides in the stalls, and in the circle. They’re running this show at maybe two thirds capacity, which, to be honest, is a failure.

Last Wednesday, I got to talking with two American tourists who were sitting behind me. They had read in the Guardian that people were fainting or getting sick at every performance. It’s almost as though that element of the review may have attracted them to the play, but this also repels a lot of people. In four performances, I’ve seen a few people walk out, but I haven’t seen anyone faint or vomit. People may gasp and cringe, but to be honest, the 2013 production in the Swan Theatre had more of an effect on audiences. (I know there have been fainters and vomiters, however, at some performances, just not as many as the press would lead you to believe.)

It’s hard to know how to best approach this play. It’s much tamer than an episode of Game of Thrones, but seeing (fake) blood is very different when it’s in person, especially if you’re close to the stage. You get drawn into a production like this, and your suspension of disbelief makes it seem more real than when you see it on television. Would more people see this play if it were less graphically bloody? Would it still be Titus Andronicus if it weren’t so bloody? After all, aside from the run-of-the-mill killings, one woman is raped, her tongue cut out and her hands cut off; her father sacrifices his hand to ransom his two sons, but that hand, and the heads of the sons, are returned to him in scorn; and Titus kills Tamora’s two sons, cooks them in a pie, and serves them up in a macabre final feast that sees four dead. It’s hard to tone that down.

I consider Titus Andronicus to be one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays; it’s not up there with Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, but it’s a powerful revenge tragedy that examines the escalation of violence until it reaches a paroxysm. It’s over the top, and if you know the play, you are prepared. But most people don’t go to the theater expecting that kind of violence.

Titus Andronicus is an important part of the Shakespearean canon, but is a difficult play. With excellent actors and direction, it can be very powerful, but it is also very risky. I think the RSC has done a great job with this production, and, while I understand why some people don’t want to see it, it remains on of Shakespeare’s strongest statements about the perils of revenge and its escalation.

(I was so inspired by the 2013 production of Titus Andronicus, that I chose Titus as the name for a cat I got later that year. Here’s a photo of him.)