December 9, 2003: Shakespeare, As You Like It

Theatre Royal Bath Company on tour at the Wilbur Theatre, Boston. Directed by Sir Peter Hall. With Rebecca Hall as Rosalind.

I had tickets for last Saturday’s matinee but was prevented from getting in to Boston (95 miles as the car flies) by the first big Nor’easter of the year, which dumped eighteen inches of snow on the city). The Wilbur management was kind enough to honor those tickets for a later performance.

An interesting take on the dark side of the play — the “winter and rough weather” side. But in the second half the winter has turned to spring; Orlando is marring the sides of trees with his love messages, and the question Rosalind raises — “What shall I do with my doublet and hose?” — has a certain answer, given sufficient time. In fact, this comedy has a curiously static quality; “there is no clock in the forest” and, once there, things just seem to meander here and there with almost no impetus to move toward a resolution. Of course, country coupling is the theme, once the threats against human life have been dealt with, and the scenes between Rebecca Hall’s Rosalind and Joseph Willson’s Orlando are charming and winning.

But there is a range of styles in the acting that becomes a touch disconcerting after a while. On the far end, Philip Voss’s Jaques is somewhat old school. I heard tones reminiscent of the nearly inimitable sonorities of John Gielgud occasionally, and an impressive accessing of a deeper register of accenting that speaks of the heritage of a long, noble acting tradition. On the near end, Hall’s Rosalind, an actress of great talent and much potential but who is covering somewhat ineptly for a lack of training and who is not being very well directed by her loving father, who clearly dotes on her and has used his influence to open important doors for her (see my notes on her Vivie Warren from last January). Hall has found a certain vagueness of lines congenial in her delivery,  notable from time to time in the course of the action, especially evident in her prologue. There, playing a “watch me pretend to hesitate while I find the next spontaneous word” kind of delivery, one wants to see her awarded at least a one-year scholarship to RADA.

The Celia, Rebecca Callard, is much more even and consistent in delivery and characterization and very pleasant throughout. She is extremely short — under five feet, I would think — and barely reaches Hall’s bosom when they embrace. The casting may have been intentional partly for this reason. But in any case they make a fine pair.

In retrospect I sense more evidence that Peter Hall wanted to make a kind of definitive contrast between rough winter and spring as states of the soul every bit as much as seasons of climate. To his mind, the inevitable paring off of couples — no fewer than four, in this play — spurred on by the good weather inside and outside the heart — controls the forward progress of the action, once we arrive in Arden, that safe haven for refugees from the arbitrary cruelty of the workaday world, Peter Hall’s production certainly captures the idea. But beyond that I couldn’t discern any deeper coherence, and I begin to think he did a deal with the Theatre Royal Bath to provide a showcase for his daughter’s considerable, but at this point still rather rough-hewn, talents. I’m not sorry I saw this production, but it did not send me out of the theatre having found something new and interesting in an all-too-familiar play.

I want to add, in my comments about acting style, that the Touchstone, Michael Silberry, a taller and more full-bodied jester than we are used to seeing, was well-nigh not understandable, and he made an almost apologetic mishmash of the seven degrees speech. This is a cover speech written by Shakespeare to give Rosalind (and Celia) time for a costume change. It is also a nice takeoff, a sort of travesty, of Jaques’s earlier speech on the seven ages of man. This speech of Touchstone’s has to come across as a brilliant verbal tour-de-force. Instead, it was only a cover speech for a costume change.

So, the more I reflect on it, the more I find a certain troubling incoherence in this production. What kind of play is it, linguistically and thematically and stylistically, that can comprehend both Jaques’s and Touchstone’s speeches? Jacques’s is pessimistic and almost elegiac, leading us to reflect on our mortality, as meaningless, as ending in mere oblivion. At the end of it, there is the slightest pause, and then Orlando enters, knife drawn, demanding food for his old, dying manservant Adam. Nothing could be more life-affirming than this. Add to that juxtaposition Touchstone’s later quibblesome tirade, reducing to a fine rhetorical science the quintessential urge each person finds in himself for self-assertion, for life-giving response to aggressive, threatening forces, and you have a circle of meaning embracing healthy human instinct as certain and reasserting itself in the face of a hostile world. Triumph, in such favorable circumstances, is rare, and so is highly prized. I found too little of these valences on view in Hall’s As You Like It, enjoyable though it was.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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