Samuel West’s first Shakespearean production for the Crucible, and sadly the last of his tenure as artistic director, As You Like It, is bursting with ideas, visual, aural and presentational. However, it is less certain that bright ideas and striking effects amount to a coherent version of the play.
All Shakespeare’s mature comedies have story lines with tragic potential. In As You Like It Duke Frederick is clearly a cruel and vindictive tyrant who has usurped his brother’s throne and pursued vendettas against supporters of Duke Senior, ultimately banishing the former duke’s daughter, Rosalind. Is it, though, really necessary to present him via every cliché that defines a fascist dictator or a mafia boss: the shades, the wheelchair, the intrusive prison door sound effect, the oppressive beams of light and so on?
The result is that for much of a monochrome first half on an essentially bare stage the humour goes for nothing. The second half is more entertaining, a tree blooming with messages and a stand of assorted hats (which rises to the piping of The Coventry Carol) suggesting a shift of world view from Tarantino to Beckett. Peter Mumford’s clever lighting gradually casts a pastel sheen over the bleak setting and Howard Goodall’s music is attractively folksy. A talented cast works expertly and precisely to animate the director’s ideas, but for me it’s only in the last half hour of a long evening that the magic of Arden kicks in.
Eve Best is a formidably intelligent actor and inevitably her Rosalind offers perceptive insights and wit; in her more restrained moments, she gives an unusually convincing impersonation of the youth, Ganymede. However, she seems to be working very hard to create an impression of high spirits and misses the naturalness of Lisa Dillon as her cousin Celia, a Marie Antoinette shepherdess trying to see the best in everyone, and Sam Troughton’s excellent Orlando, perpetually poised between wonder and mischief.
Harry Peacock is a resourceful Touchstone, strong on physical comedy and delivering line-by-line impersonations of Olivier and Gielgud. Daniel Weyman, a surprisingly vigorous melancholic as Jaques, manages to survive his vertiginous high-heels and Christopher Ravenscroft doubles neatly as the two dukes.
Katrina Lindsay’s designs are striking, but somewhat random, whether in the giant bird carried on for the second half or in the selection of funny hats. In that respect the designs reflect the direction, though judging from the audience response my reservations are not widely shared.