“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”
As You Like It is one half of the 2010 Bridge Project season now in residence at the Old Vic, The Tempest being the other. The transatlantic company, directed by Sam Mendes, takes two classic plays in rep around the world for a year, starting in New York at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, these actors have so far been to Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Spain, Germany and Holland with these two Shakespeare works and London is their current leg.
The play follows Rosalind, daughter of the Duke Senior who has been usurped by his own brother Duke Ferdinand and forced into exile. Rosalind remained in court due to her close friendship with Ferdinand’s daugher and her own cousin Celia, but the situation becomes increasingly unbearable and the two women flee the court disguised as men with the court jester Touchstone. They end up seeking sanctuary in the Forest of Arden where they meet up with a range of the forest’s inhabitants and the pastoral setting encourages a whole range of amorous feeling which may or may not end up in a quadruple wedding (what do you think?!) This is a darker version of the play than most, the comedy has been dialled down somewhat and an air of melancholy pervades which brings an interestingly different dynamic.
This really is Juliet Rylance’s show: her Rosalind lights up the stage brightly from the off, starting in a beautiful jade green dress and full of a youthful exuberance, her early scenes with Michelle Beck’s Celia are delightful, and impetuousness, you really believe she is going for the Duke as he banishes her. This impulsiveness is carried through to the forest as she tumbles head-first in love and she has a girlish playfulness she can’t quite conceal even whilst disguised as a boy, stealing a kiss from Orlando under the pretence of teaching him the right way to woo. She has such a natural confidence and ease on the stage, it is a pleasure to watch her, right ‘til the end of the gender-defying epilogue. She is nicely matched by Christian Camargo (her real-life husband and Dexter’s evil brother from season 1) as Orlando, dreamily romantic, quietly comic and unafraid to let Rylance shine.
There’s also been some impressive work with some of the supporting characters who sometimes make this play a little hard-going: Thomas Sadoski makes Touchstone as funny as I’ve seen him and a keen observer of all around him and Edward Bennett lends his Oliver a clear-spoken sharpness. With Michael Thomas’ sterling work as both the Dukes, there really is the general feeling of high quality throughout this production.
This play does seem much better suited to the ensemble in general, not least because they all get to do so much more, especially the women. The second act here with its series of meetings between the various inhabitants of the forest is perfect for a good group of actors and no-one disappointed here: Ashlie Atkinson as a buxom Phoebe, Anthony O’Donnell’s knowing shepherd Corin and Jenni Barber’s cheeky country girl Audrey all stood out for me and Stephen Dillane’s delightfully sardonic man of the world Jaques was a great touch, his unexpected Bob Dylan impersonation providing the biggest laugh of the play, although probably not to everyone’s taste.
The violin-led score is excellent and perfectly judged to the melancholic overtones. And Mendes conjures some visually impressive moments: the swinging light over the wrestling match, the moment when Duke Frederick’s court is transformed into the exiled Duke Senior’s headquarters by the donning of robes, Mendes really does have an eye for an arresting image which translates so well onto the stage.
Taking the commonalities identified by Ted Hughes between these two plays, of father/daughter relationships, usurped positions and fierce sibling rivalries and presenting them as explorations of the same themes written at different stages of Shakespeare’s career does feel like a bit of a stretch to be honest. An issue probably not helped by the fact I saw them the wrong way round in that respect, but also in their completely different presentations, it was hard to see the connecting tissue between the two. I do wonder what the third and final year of the Bridge Project will hold.
Perhaps I enjoyed this more because of being relatively disappointed by The Tempest, but I do genuinely think that this was an extremely good production. A strong and varied ensemble clearly comfortable with their work, elevated by what I suspect will be a award-winning performance from Rylance, beautifully staged and musically spot on: if you only do one of the Bridge Project shows this year, then this is definitely the one to plump for.
Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Programme cost: £4 (but covers both Bridge Project shows)
Booking until 21st August
Note: a little smoking on stage