Grumbler: I suppose I have to begin by asking whether, if you’ll forgive the obvious question, you actually did like it?
Optimist: Equally obviously, your question is too simple. Remember The Spectator rates its readers’ intelligence, abjuring the crudity of the ‘stars out of five’ system beloved of its competitors.
G: You could at least begin by telling me about the starring role, for isn’t the play all about Rosalind? Doesn’t it stand or fall on whether it’s ‘love at first sight’ for the audience as well as for the actors? How can any of today’s actors charm the birds from the trees as the likes of Vanessa Redgrave once did?
O: Times change, theatre is ‘written on the wind’. All that matters is that we should be seduced by the individual allure, the magnetism, the vibrant presence of a particular actress. And I can assure you that the RSC’s Pippa Nixon is richly endowed with those gifts. With her sinuously slim figure and boyish face, Pippa Nixon certainly has the perfect physique du rôle for her mock-wooing of Orlando in the guise of Ganymede. I only wondered about the jeu d’esprit of additional masculinity in the shape of a wad of socks stuffed down her waistband — after all, the trousers weren’t even tight enough to have given her away.
G: Surely it’s only the words that matter?
O: Never say ‘only’! But Pippa Nixon certainly knows how to use them to have her way with everyone she encounters. There’s an especially lovely exchange with Jaques (quite smitten with the ‘pretty youth’) — to whose melancholy Oliver Ryan brings a swooning response to music and an engaging sense of humour. But she’d gain something by easing up a little, by exploring the power of pause, the magic of stillness. She can light up the stage with a most beautiful sudden smile, and just the slightest rein on energy and impulse would render her irresistible. You could think she’s a touch too forward with Orlando, too obviously smitten from the start, and that her impulsive kiss at the climax of the ‘mock wedding’ went too far. It wasn’t clear to me whether Alex Waldmann’s instantly likeable, tousle-headed Orlando has or has not sussed out Ganymede’s true identity, but that’s also part of the fun.
G: Don’t let’s get into gender politics or go on about sexual ambiguity. I trust there isn’t, as so often the fashion, anything wayward between Rosalind and Celia?
O: Strange to report, absolutely not. Joanna Horton is a splendidly independent Celia, wowing the house by seizing a microphone and brilliantly improvising a pop song on what Touchstone rightly scorns as the ‘very false gallop’ of Orlando’s tree-pinned verse. As ever, it remains a mystery why on earth such an intelligent girl should wish to pair up on an instant with Orlando’s wicked brother.
G: You hardly need me to remind you of Rosalind’s own credo, ‘the wiser the waywarder’.
O: Maybe so, but what I’d really like to applaud are the wise and refreshing qualities of Swedish director Maria Aberg’s stylish production. The monochrome severity of Duke Frederick’s court transmutes into the light and colour of new life in the Forest, wonderfully evoked by designer Naomi Dawson’s rotating cage-like labyrinth. The slow-motion semaphore gestures of the Bad Duke’s courtiers — a stylised hand-jive routine — neatly characterises the sterility of his urban kingdom as opposed to the life-giving anarchy of the Forest of Arden. Here, Aberg creates a perfect setting for the glorious comedy of Shakespeare’s therapeutic games, with a resident band, great music by Laura Marling and uninhibited song and dance conjuring up the hippie licence of a Glastonbury folk festival. That inevitably cues a shower of real rain with Orlando and Rosalind celebrating their love by whooping it up on the muddy ground.
G: Well, that’s at least a down-to-earth way of celebrating married bliss but I’d guess that the rock’n’roll party could easily have got out of hand.
O: What if it did? It’s a price well worth paying for the verve and infectious vitality of the closing scenes. You may find the complementary low-life couplings of the red-nose Touchstone and his Audrey, of Silvius and Phoebe, a trifle confusing, but then aren’t they always? Thankfully, their antics are as hilarious as the Bard intended, and that’s far from often the case. This is already a great show and it’ll get better. Who knows but even you might enjoy it.