Crowds of paparazzi massing on the pavement always signals a major theatrical event – and not always a good one. But there’s enough in David Lan’s 1940s updating of As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies, to entertain both the star-spotters and the cognoscenti.
In particular, there’s an outstanding Rosalind from Helen McCrory who plumbs real depths of feeling. When she cries, “you don’t know how many fathoms deep I am in love”, we may not actually know, but we have a damn good idea. Even better, despite these palpable emotions of a woman besotted, McCrory also manages to convey a roughness in her male disguise as Ganymede that suggests that her notion of masculinity is not all favourable.
McCrory’s Rosalind is matched by an Orlando from Dominic West who, for once, doesn’t seem like a goody-two-shoes. We sense the scale of his anger when he addresses his brother and can truly understand how he wins the unequal wrestling bout (the best I’ve ever seen staged - you could almost imagine this was the Saturday Sport in the 1960s).
As Celia, Sienna Miller (the real reason that the paparazzi were outside, of course) is not disgraced in this company. It’s true that she starts off by gabbling her words as if she wants the ordeal over quickly, but she recovers her poise and has a genuine rapport with McCrory’s Rosalind. Also on the plus side, there’s some excellent music (composed by Tim Sutton and played on stage by talented actor-musicians) and, while Clive Rowe’s Duke Senior seems more like a jovial bandmaster than an exiled aristocrat, his singing is, as always, top notch.
The other star casting is a little less successful. Strangely for a stand-up comedian, Sean Hughes’ Touchstone is spectacularly unfunny. Many of his lines have been cut – for which we should be grateful. But Reece Shearsmith’s Jaques is even worse. This is the most miserable fellow in the Shakespeare canon, every reference to him emphasises his melancholy and yet Shearsmith plays him like a chatty social jester – it’s as shocking as finding bawdy jokes in Kirkegaard. On Shearsmith, the “All the world’s a stage” speech is wasted.
Perhaps the production is lacking a political dimension. Though Lan has set it in late Forties France, references to the dark days of the war are scant. Why should people be living in the Forest of Arden if the Occupation is over? It might have made sense if Duke Frederick had been a collaborator - indeed a touch of torture to extract information as to his daughter’s whereabouts suggests he might have been - but world affairs seem to have passed Arden by.
Still, in many ways, this is an excellent production: the first-class songs make it a near musical, some good performances and a happy ending ensure a feelgood night. But the effect is spoiled by some inadequate casting, and it’s only McCrory’s Rosalind that really lifts the spirits.
- Maxwell Cooter