I remember when As You Like It was a comedy. It is, in fact, one of the most vivacious of Shakespeare's "festive" comedies in which conventional roles and status are overturned for a period of dramatic misrule. In the case of Peter Brewis's production for The Dolly Shop, this more often than not translates as overturning the comedy itself.
The play's first act is relatively long and sombre, but is really little more than scene-setting: providing an explanation for the rightful Duke's exile in the Forest of Arden, and supplying reasons for Rosalind and Celia one the one hand and Orlando on the other to join the sylvan community. Brewis directs it as if it were Chekhov, with the few obvious gags detracting from the gravity of the situation. This approach continues throughout the play: for every comic opportunity half-heartedly grasped, several more slip by unnoticed.
Julia Barrie makes a stately Rosalind, but on donning male apparel she looks and behaves less like a frisky youth than a young gel who has lately ridden to hounds. The core conceit of the play, when the disguised Rosalind invites lovelorn Orlando to woo "him" as if "he" were the beloved Rosalind, is devoid of any boyish "holiday humour" which might persuade Orlando (Julius D'Silva) to go along with the lark – here it feels more like counselling.
Jane Nash's Celia is truculent, and apparently jealous of Rosalind for having a suitor until her own heart is captured at first sight by Orlando's reformed brother Oliver. Paul Kemp, in a horrendous charity-shop suit and orange shirt, may think that he is playing Touchstone as a tired old comedian, when in reality he is merely giving a tired performance. The only consistently comical player on the stage is Peter Pacey as the melancholy Jaques. True, for a modern audience Jaques may supply much of the play's humour, but this comes through self-deprecating cynicism, not the zany antics of Pacey, who seems less likely to be going off to live with a hermit on his final exit than to join a circus.
Director Brewis also supplies a clutch of tuneful (if over-long) early-English musical arrangements for Christopher Hogan to sing as Amiens the minstrel, but then capriciously slips in a 1950s pop chord sequence for the final number. It is further evidence that, in producing an As You Like It as light on laughter as this one, The Dolly Shop are not so much making a point as missing one.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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