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Jesting in earnest

As You Like It; The Winter’s Tale
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

As You Like It; The Winter’s Tale
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Back in the rehearsal room for the first time since his triumphant Histories cycle, the RSC’s artistic director Michael Boyd whisks As You Like It far away from the Forest of Arden. Not a tree in sight, and does anyone give a twig? Yes, the play’s in part a satire on the Elizabethans’ taste for awful pastoral verse, but Boyd wisely sets it on a clinically bare stage, asking us to respond firstly to its Mozartean games on the universal joys and terrible deceptions of human passion. The courtly costumes (puritanical black with white ruffs) could be 17th-century Dutch, while in the ‘forest’ pretty well anything goes.

Katy Stephens is the feisty, mustachioed Rosalind-as-Ganymede, striding the stage like a musketeer. Her rubicund weathered face (stark contrast with her cousin Celia’s peach-blossom cheeks) suggests she may have wasted too much time skinning rabbits (yes, real ones) with Geoffrey Freshwater’s shepherd. She has a wild and winning energy, but is too much for Jonjo O’Neill’s Orlando, bludgeoning the rebellious, red-blooded male who first caught her fancy into dull, incomprehending submission. This throws away the fun that’s to be had when Rosalind and Orlando are both knowingly sporting with one another. As yet there’s too much of Katy Stephens’s Joan of Arc from the Histories in her Rosalind. To slow down and let in a modicum of wit and charm would yield rich rewards.


Characteristically Boydian touches include the sinister, ritualised movements of the courtiers and the presentation of the horny song, ‘What shall he have that killed the deer?’, as the virginal Celia’s nightmare. John Woolf’s music is a pleasure throughout, especially as show-stoppingly sung by Forbes Masson’s Jaques, deservedly appropriating ‘Under the greenwood tree’ for his stunning entrance. This is infinite melancholy and exquisitely crafted humour in the slowest of slow motions. A haunting portrait of the artist as subversive, it perfectly complements Richard Katz’s inspired fooling as the sooty-eyed Touchstone, every word crystal sharp and striking home. It’s the outsiders, comics and clowns who steal the show, but perish my doubts about the Rosalind and Orlando, for this is a splendid production that shows the play as more complex than you’d ever supposed.

David Farr’s The Winter’s Tale is another story. It opens with an Edwardian Christmas banquet. At stage rear, two immense bookcases tower up. Here, you presume, we have Leontes the intellectual, the man of reason so swiftly to be undone by lunatic unreason, by a conviction of his heavily pregnant wife’s infidelity with his best friend so intense as to cause her death and the disposal abroad of her baby. Or could the idea be that the king has bought his books by the yard, remaining fatally ignorant of their contents?

So pleased is Farr with his bibliomanic conceit that he transports it all the way from urban Sicily into the Arcadian pastures of furthest Bohemia. There the peasants enacting a grotesquely priapic dance at the sheep-shearing festival are cloaked in fluttering pages torn from the book covers which serve as their headgear. Impossible to swear to it, but it looks very much as though the bear who dines upon the luckless Antigonus has also been kitted out at Paperchase.

Greg Hicks is the tortured soul who has drunk and seen the spider, the admirable Kelly Hunter his massively wronged wife. Nervy and taut, this is as nihilistic, self-hating a Leontes as you could hope to see, and from first to last Hicks’s clipped, tremulous delivery of key lines compels attention. But is not the tragedy that of the delusions of a manic self-love rather than of the masochistic persona? Masochistic indeed to have spent, as Farr suggests, some 16 penitential years slumped among the detritus of books he failed to prize above his kingdom.


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