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.

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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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The BBC Should Broadcast More Theater

This weekend, the BBC broadcast a filmed-in-theater production of Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott, and filmed at the Almeida Theatre in 2017. This seems to have been very popular, judging from reactions in the press and on social media. Why don’t they broadcast filmed theater more often?

Live theater broadcasts have become commonplace in the UK, with productions from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company beamed to cinemas several times a year. The NT Live series presents about one production a month – sometimes live, sometimes “encore” productions that they filmed in previous years – and the RSC broadcasts their Shakespeare productions, four or five a year, and has done so since 2014. (The first RSC live production was in late 2013; Richard II, starring David Tennant.) And another series, Cinema Live, produces the occasional play, along with music and dance productions.

These cinema broadcasts – part of what is called “event cinema” here, which includes operas, concerts, etc. – are now a staple of cinema viewing, but they are expensive. Tickets cost around £20 (depending on whether one is a member of a cinema, and some cinemas charge more or less depending on the event), meaning they are out of reach for many people. In addition, they tend to sell out quite early, so people who only hear about them near the time of the broadcast can’t even get tickets.

An article in the Guardian today discusses how well Shakespeare “translates to the small screen,” and suggests that if Will were alive today, he might be a show runner. This article discusses not just theater being filmed, but also other adaptations of Shakespeare plays, such as the recent Hollow Crown series of history plays, and the forthcoming King Lear, with Anthony Hopkins leading a constellation of stars.

But why not just film more plays in the theater and broadcast them on TV? The BBC being a public broadcaster could make these broadcasts more frequent than the few times a year, and they could range from Shakespeare to comedies, from musicals to popular theater. After all, theater companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company receive a fair amount of public money; why can’t they give back with some of their existing films so the general public can see theater in their homes?

While the RSC releases DVDs and Blu-Rays of their filmed productions, so anyone can buy them, and, presumably, libraries can stock them to loan, the NT Live productions sit gathering virtual dust in an archive. None of them are released on disc, and the only way anyone can view them is to visit the National Theatre’s archive, which isn’t very practical for anyone outside of London.

The quality of these filmed productions is impeccable; there’s a great deal of know-how and technique that has been developed in recent years, so these films aren’t just a couple of cameras switching between long views and close-ups, but are rather well choreographed presentations of the plays. They make theater come to life in a way that, while different from being physically present, is still powerful. As a regular theater-goer – often selecting front row seats to be as immersed as possible – the films are certainly different, but they are their own from of production, which can be often as good as being in the theater. (Better, if all you can get are the cheap seats.)

The main question for theaters is whether these live broadcasts cannibalize ticket sales. With the current RSC production of Macbeth being broadcast to cinemas on April 11, it’s clear that this is not the case. The production, starring Christophe Eccleston, is sold out for its entire run through September in Stratford-upon-Avon, and for its shorter run in London. Quite the contrary; it seems that, in many cases, these broadcasts get more people interested in the theater, potentially selling more tickets to the actual productions. The National Theatre had a revival of Amadeus last year, and this was so popular that they’ve brought it back again this year. The NT Live broadcast certainly didn’t reduce the demand for tickets, and may have actually helped sell more.

In the end, it’s about providing TV audiences with a variety of programming. There’s plenty of low-brow fare: weekend comedies, soap operas, reality shows, murder mysteries, and the like. Would it be that hard to broadcast, say, one filmed play a month? It’s certainly not a question of cost; it’s much less expensive to film a stage production than it is to reproduce the same play in a studio or on location, or to shoot a TV movie. The technology exists, is widely used, and there are production companies who have a great deal of experience. It’s probably more a question of the BBC not wanting to seem “elitist,” as if presenting theater on TV would be a bad thing.

As a regular attendee of theater productions, I would welcome this. I would love to see not only the NT Live and RSC productions on TV, or productions like this Hamlet, but also original productions from smaller theaters. Let the TV watching public discover the riches of theater in the UK.

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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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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Theater Review: Girl from the North Country, by Conor McPherson, at the Old Vic

North countryThose who know me will not be surprised that when I heard a play was being produced in London based on songs by Bob Dylan, I would rush to get tickets. My partner bought a pair of tickets as a Christmas present last year, and we were in the front row, dead center.

This is the first time Dylan has authorized the use of his music on stage since an ill-fated dance-based show by Twyla Tharp in 2006, that lasted a mere three weeks on Broadway. Dylan’s record company, Sony, approached playwright and director Conor McPherson asking if he would be interested in writing something around Dylan’s songs, and while he was reluctant, he came up with an idea and submitted it to Dylan’s management. They approved, and he went ahead with the project. The theater describes it as follows:

Duluth, Minnesota. 1934.

A community living on a knife-edge huddle together in the local guesthouse.

The owner, Nick, owes more money than he can ever repay, his wife Elizabeth is losing her mind and their daughter Marianne is carrying a child no-one will account for.

And, when a preacher selling bibles and a boxer looking for a comeback show up in the middle of the night, things start to spiral beyond the point of no return…

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