Novello Theatre (formerly the Strand), under new management by Delfont Macintosh Theaters. Royal Shakespeare Company. Directed by Dominic Cooke. Desinged by Rae Smith. 3 hrs 15 mins. One interval of 20 minutes
Rae Smith gives us a gigantic pine tree in the upper middle of the stage, of such great girth that it would take a party of eight or nine persons with arms outstretched and linked to embrace it. It is climbable, and Orlando makes his way up into it. After the interval we see he has hung his verses from its branches, and its general solidity grounds this production very well. This was closing night, and the pace, though a bit slow at first, picked up and stayed up, holding this audience entranced for over three hours.
Lea Williams, who has been short-listed for or has won a number of acting prizes, should win a prize for her Rosalind, in this debut performance with the RSC. I thought at first she looked too old for the role, and strictly speaking she is too old for it; but after a while it doesn’t matter any more — she was quite wonderful, and her reading of the immortal lines explaining how many fathoms deep she is in love captured a depth of feeling uncommon even among the best actresses of Shakespeare’s romantic heroines. Judging from a laudatory review plastered up near the entrance, the present audience missed a stellar performance of Celia / Aliena by Amanda Harris, who was indisposed and whose part was still ably played by Meg Fraser, who usually plays the Audrey. And the Orlando had an equally able and emotionally just right personification in Barnaby Kay, an athlete with an intellect who falls so fast and so desperately for Rosalind that, early on, he is speechless in her presence but who makes up for this lack with a perfect torrent of verses later on, which becomes the object of great good fun — topped, we might say, by his spontaneous salutation to Rosalind in blank verse: enough to drive Jaques from their company (“God byee, an ye talk in blank verse” — a wonderful inside joke insufficiently well appreciated by a modern audience). And the Touchstone, whose dress was the most eclectic of all, in this ragbag-to-riches modern dress (1890 – 2005) production, consisting typically of sandals, ragged trousers, a tuxedo jacket, and a motley, head-covering fool’s cap, was a clean-tongued, fast-talking wit along for the ride (though it’s not clear who invited him).
There are at least three set-pieces in this play. The first, Duke Senior’s “books in the running brooks” justification for the harshness of nature and life in general, was reasonably well delivered, as was Jaques’s treacherous “Seven Ages of Man” speech by the African actor Joseph Mydell; but surely the best was Paul Chahidi’s wonderful comic rendition of Touchstone’s balancing act of a speech about the seven degrees of insult. It is a transparent cover speech, provided by a stage-wise author to give the Rosalind time to change out of her boyish Ganymede costume into the glad rags (not so ragged here as plain white and flowing) of nuptial service. It’s probably the best such speech ever written, though a few others also by Shakespeare come close.
And the music was very good, too, composed by Gary Yershon, for an unlikely ensemble of French horn, guitar doubling on banjo, and small accordion, each of which is used at some points independently of the other two — music with an odd-scale modern flavor, but very articulate and mellow all at once. This kind of music underlay some very nice ensemble singing by the company and also the final dance — ya gotta have a dance to end a play with this many marriages in it!
This is all to say that there was ensemble playing at its best exhibited here, offering a very straightforward reading of the play, clear in its action, really valuable in its love for the comic genius of the play. If the text was cut at all, it was not cut by much, in this three-hour-and-a-quarter embrace of a lengthy and lively play about a place as much in the mind as in Arden, whose wonderful forest has no clock. Time was on their side.