Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 23 October, 1996

In April, my colleague David Murray described Steven Pimlott's production at its Stratford opening as "a glum, disheartening affair... at a deadly even pace." Not much seems to have changed in six months. If one lays aside Ashley Martin-Davies's sheet-metal design (which, fortunately, never actually works against the play), Pimlott's is a straightforward production, in period costume, which pays lip service to the notion of gender-bending whilst never truly getting to the meat of the issue: when Orlando meets the disguised Rosalind in the forest, Pimlott choreographs their first exchange as electrically amorous, but since Niamh Cusack looks and behaves not so much androgynously as exactly like a woman in breeches, any greater disturbance underlying the scene is quite absent.

The play's sombre aspect is made palpable in the psychosis of Colum Convey's usurping Duke Frederick (who at one point even cackles hysterically) and in the winter whipping through the forest in which the rightful duke and his court are exiled. For them, this is no pastoral lark, notwithstanding that the very arrival of Rosalind and Celia seems to signal the onset of spring. Social estate and rank are never forgotten either the duke pays so much attention to Jaques's "seven ages of man" speech that he fails to notice old Adam (but, in John Quayle's performance, not nearly old enough) finally expiring off to one side.

Here and elsewhere, John Woodvine declaims sententiously but not quite compellingly as a Jaques plainly used to being listened to and indulged. Cusack and Liam Cunningham are personable enough as Rosalind and Orlando, but not especially distinguished. They are wholly overshadowed on the entrance of Silvius and Phebe Joseph Fiennes and the wonderful Victoria Hamilton in holiday mood away from their main roles this season as Troilus and Cressida, and drawing the only spontaneous applause of the evening (although Pimlott grows excessive in the "what is love?" exchange, turning it almost into a tag-wrestling match). The other main success is that of David Tennant in pulling off the considerable achievement of making a Shakespearean clown funny without entirely tearing up the script. His harlequin-clad Touchstone is a mordant creation, aware that only his fool's licence excuses his constant criticisms and quite conscious that he is misusing Audrey the goatherd (as is Audrey's suitor William, who smartly nuts him).

Jason Carr's music is a run-of-the-mill twentieth-century version of minor-key pastoral dull, in other words. Hymen, god of marriage, gets a sex-change and a nice new frock in Stratford, apparently, Doreen Andrew appeared in sensible black trouser-suit as a kind of punter ex machina; here, she has become literally a fairy godmother. All of these, however, are minor successes or failures in a production that for the most part is simply there. Pimlott admirably refrains from imposing any grand, idiosyncratic interpretations upon the play; unfortunately, he also avoids imbuing it with much excitement or enjoyment.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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