There's that moment when you walk into a pub on Boxing Day and see every man in a particularly garish sweater, the unwilling wearers of hideous Christmas gifts. Halfway through Gregory Doran's production of As You Like It, I felt similarly afflicted as Duke Frederick and the exiled lords paraded across stage in resplendent knitwear, trailing tapestry cushions behind them.
Much has been made of the involvement of celebrated knitting designer Kaffe Fassett in this production but, truthfully, his creations serve only as a distraction. The same could be said about the use of Django Bates as composer. His soft, chamber jazz adds nothing and the use of yet another celebrity seems a hype too far. If it's true that a good play needs no epilogue, it's also true that it needs no gimmicks. Fortunately, Gregory Doran's production is in all other ways a clear and uncluttered telling of Shakespeare's charming sylvan tale, and such gimmicks don't spoil the show.
Doran's success is thanks in no small part to Alexandra Gilbreath, who makes an especially fine Rosalind. She is one of the smallest Rosalinds I've ever seen – and certainly isn't “more than uncommon tall” – but she's no shrinking violet either. She makes plain her infatuation with Orlando at the earliest moment, becoming seemingly unable to breathe. And she revels in her opportunity later to assume her male alter-ego, Ganymede. As such, Gilbreath swaggers, struts and overplays the part – knowing that this is her chance to give free rein to her sexuality. Her scenes in drag with Orlando are charged with sexual frisson.
Gilbreath is aided by Antony Howell's blunt, robustly masculine Orlando. Right from the start, when he confronts his brother, we can see that his is a he-man Orlando who does not take easily to tender wooing. Nancy Carroll's Celia is also nicely judged.
There are some excellent performances, too, amongst the supporting characters. Adrian Schiller is a most melancholic Touchstone, and his stone-faced performance is complemented by Nina Conti's doltish Audrey - their scenes together provide most of the play's genuine comedy. Ian Hogg plays both Dukes, the rightful Duke Senior and the usurping Duke Frederick. As the latter, he's particularly good. A swaggering bully, the ruler of a quasi-fascist state - it's little wonder that Celia chooses to accompany Rosalind on her exile. The only problem with this is that it makes his sudden conversion at the end of the play more implausible than usual.
I don't want to quibble, though. Doran's production was not warmly received at Stratford, but outlandish knitwear aside, I find it hard to fault.
Note: The following review dates from March 2000 and this production's original run in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Director Gregory Doran's work rarely disappoints, but this production of As You Like It is one of those rarities. While the distinguished textile designer Kaffe Fassett provides interesting costumes, cushions and carpet and the award-winning jazz composer Django Bates contributes some exciting music, neither textiles nor music seem relevant to Doran's theme - the exploration of the nature of love.
In fact, the music sounds out of place and intrusive in this stylised Forest of Arden and the influence of the inanimate tapestries robs the first half of the play of its vivacity and effervescence. The statuesque becomes static and Shakespeare's quicksilver is in danger of being almost dull.
The second half is better. The lords in exile in the forest are a tedious bunch, but those wonderful scenes in which Orlando woos Rosalind, which seldom fail, charm the audience once again. Yet one felt sorry for Anthony Howell. Presumably cast as Orlando on the strength of his TV appearance in Wives and Daughters and with limited experience in the theatre, he's not yet equipped to face such a challenge as this. On the page, Orlando is a bland hero and it needs more than Howell's wholesome 'masculine-boy-next-door' image to explain why a scintillating girl like Rosalind should fall for him. Would that he had some of the energy and charisma of Andrew Pointon's Silvius.
Alexandra Gilbreath as Rosalind sparkles as much as she can in the circumstances. But whilst, towards the end, the production achieves a warm and comforting glow, it is that of a mature dessert wine not bubbling champagne. In an imaginative piece of programming, later in the season Shakespeare's pastoral-comedy about love is joined by his great love-tragedy, and Gilbreath plays both Rosalind and Juliet.
This then is not a bad production, just a rather ordinary one. But it's worth seeing for two true casting gems. In Adrian Schiller's Touchstone, there are echoes of Baldrick, Max Wall and Larry Grayson, but the sum is a wonderfully original reading of the part. World-weary, acerbic and detached, he provides the melancholic counterpoint in the play more effectively than Declan Conlon's rather predictable Jacques. The best joke of the evening is when Touchstone and Corin, as shepherds, transform the audience into the flock of sheep they are watching.
The second jewel shines even brighter. Peter Copley, who has worked as a professional actor since the early 1930s, plays the octogenarian Adam with subtlety, conviction and immense generosity towards his fellow actors. He returns in triumph later in the play as Hymen, the god of marriage. The joy this consummate veteran brings is the greatest delight of the evening.
As You Like It opened at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 23 March 2000 (previews from 16 March) and continued there in repertory until 5 October 2000.