As You Like It
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 18, 2005
Call me a slob, but 3 hours and 12 minutes of As You Like It is more As You Like It than I actually like.
I'm not saying that Shakespeare demands cuts (though they're generally quite useful). I'm not saying that there weren't people in the room who were clearly enchanted by and involved with what was going on on stage. But, for me, Sir Peter Hall's slow and heavy-handed production of this play sapped the joy and spirit right out of it, making it what we were always afraid it was when we were forced to read it in high school or college—i.e., long and boring.
Doesn't the title cue us that the play is about giving the audience what it craves? As You Like It is an amalgam of many of Shakespeare's most tried-and-true ingredients: A boy and girl who thrust and parry a bit before they're ready to admit to each other/themselves that they're head-over-heels in love; a stolen kingdom and a little bit of intrigue before things are inevitably restored to just and righteous order; and comic relief, in the form of a clown in love with an earthy country girl and a self-important windbag in love with the sound of his own voice. Throw in some singing, some dancing, and a few other random plot points, and you've got a crowd-pleaser, told in the Bard's timeless poetry, to be sure, but not exactly brimming with profundity or eternal life lessons. It's a romantic comedy, for gosh sakes! But Hall has decked it out as if it were Hamlet, underlining practically everything in it with a seriousness of purpose that, whether or not the play actually supports it, makes for heavy and unpleasant going from the bleachers.
In the play's main storyline, Rosalind, disguised as the boy Ganymede, gives her boyfriend Orlando "lessons" in how to woo his sweetheart (herself). Hall, with his daughter Rebecca as Rosalind/Ganymede, turns this game into an agonizing test; my companion (only slightly exaggerating) compared it to William Mastrosimone's Extremities, where an abused heroine tortures and torments a rapist.
One of the subplots concerns the simple shepherd Silvius and the woman he loves, a shepherdess named Phoebe. Phoebe doesn't like Silvius, especially after she lays eyes on Ganymede and decides to fall in love with him instantly. Ganymede, who is of course actually Rosalind, can't let this happen, and contrives to bring Silvius and Phoebe together. But her action, which in other As You Like Its has felt loving and inevitable, here seems brutal and random: Phoebe screams inconsolably when she discovers that she's been tricked into marrying this fellow she, apparently, genuinely detests.
I guess Hall is saying something about what life is really like here. The question is: should he be? I'm just not sure that the mostly two-dimensional characters in As You Like It can support all the weighty baggage that Hall's interpretation is handing them. And even if you think they can, I still have to ask, why must these delightful creations be made to do so? Why can't we just enjoy Rosalind-as-Ganymede teasing Orlando, and look happily forward to her unmasking and an unambiguously happy ending?
Some things I did enjoy about the production: Dan Stevens's exuberantly boyish Orlando, Michael Siberry's golden-throated Touchstone (the clown), James Laurenson's swell turns as the very evil usurper Duke Frederick and the very gentle banished Duke, and Philip Voss's comically pompous Jaques (except during his famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech, which he declaimed in a manner so well-rehearsed that it took me away from the play and into an oratory contest).
Some things I did not enjoy: the blackshirt/fascist uniforms worn by Duke Frederick's men (unnecessary overkill, don't you think; plus almost trite in the context of modern productions of Shakespeare); John Gunter's dour set, which includes a weird trough of dirt in the first scene that confused me and an unappetizingly barren forest for most of the rest of the play; and the decision to include verse after verse of all those woodsy nature songs.
Rosalind's epilogue felt pretty beside the point, too; after more than three hours, all I really wanted to do was go home. I want to be so wrapped up in what's happening on stage that I don't even know what time it is, but Hall's work here, by trying to impose serious purpose and ideas on a sweetly gossamer romance, prevented me from becoming either engaged in said ideas or enchanted by said sweetness. Not theatre as I like it; not really As You Like It either, I fear.