Lloyd Evans

How did this plotless goon-show wind up at the Royal Court?

Plus: if you can digest three hours of literary froth, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in the Olivier’s new As You Like It

How did this plotless goon-show wind up at the Royal Court?
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RoosevElvis

Royal Court, until 14 November

As You Like It

Olivier, in rep until 5 March 2016

One of the challenges of art is to know the difference between innovation and error. I wonder sometimes if the Royal Court realises such a confusion can arise. Its new production, RoosevElvis, has been hailed as a thesaurus of fascinating novelties but to me it looks like a classic case of ineptitude posing as originality. It opens with two costumed women perched on bar stools speaking into microphones. One is dressed as Teddy Roosevelt in a cowboy hat and a handlebar moustache with a three-foot wingspan. The other is an Elvis impersonatrix wearing a lazy smirk and a black wig that sags forlornly over her ears, which seem to have turned pink with embarrassment. Introductions over, they reveal their true identities. The Elvis imitator is Ann, a sad, dim toiler at a factory that presses edible lard from slaughtered cows. Brenda, the Roosevelt admirer, is a spry, perky taxidermist. They’re lovers, we learn. No, hang on. They had a weekend tryst that they swiftly regretted. So this isn’t a wild, doomed romance that might engage our hopes and fears, it’s just a tepid fling gone cold before it starts.

They set off on a sightseeing tour of the Midwest whose meandering progress is illuminated for us with video footage. Mingling film and theatre seems like a good idea until you realise that the two genres keep tripping each other up. Theatre is now, film is then. Theatre is an act of hospitality whereas film is an act of reminiscence. Fusing the two is like running a bistro where the chef constantly interrupts service to show diners photographs of last night’s dishes.

It soon emerges that Ann and Brenda’s friendship is as durable as a marshmallow aqueduct. They have no shared interests, no grounds for war or reconciliation, no dramatic goals, no challenges to overcome. The same is true of their dead heroes whose differences are accentuated in two bizarrely polarised performances. Kirsten Sieh makes Roosevelt a bright, articulate and zingingly self-confident maverick while Libby King portrays Elvis as a drowsy, meat-gobbling pistol-fondler with an abnormal interest in policemen. After about 70 minutes, dopey Ann gets an idea. She will visit Graceland. Drab clips show her dawdling wordlessly at the gates and adding an inky squiggle to the heavily defaced ramparts of the King’s vacant castle. Then, ping! The lights go down and the play ends. It’s a mystery how this plotless goon-show wound up at the Court. The references to buddy movies such as Badlands and Thelma and Louise suggest that it may be the debris of a film deal that fell through. If so, hoorah for Hollywood.

As You Like It is a play with two main attractions and a whole heap of drawbacks. The glib plot is artificial and convoluted. The stage is crowded with too many romances of an identical calibre. The reliance on cross-dressing as a source of mirth will turn even the keenest crowd into a posse of yawn-stiflers. And the characters are brittle creations who exist primarily to showcase the author’s silvery tongue and lightening wit. On the plus side the role of Rosalind, the longest female part in Shakespeare, is attractive to thesps because she’s a cool, eloquent, fearless beauty chased by a needy slab of male pulchritude. And Jaques’s ‘seven ages of man’ speech is a lovely gem buried in a mountain of clever waffle. Paul Chahidi delivers the lines while pacing about the stage like a zonked tramp looking for his bum-bag. And he pads out the lines with pauses, false starts and the odd quizzical frown flung into the middle distance. In other words he wants to persuade us he’s Making It Up As He Goes Along, which is a peculiar way to tackle such a heavily anthologised gobbet.

The visuals are the strongest element in Polly Findlay’s modernistic production. The opening scenes are located in an office that resembles a Forex trading floor. Stout machines, shiny tables and metal chairs are disposed across a dirt-concealing carpet with tutti-frutti colourings. As the location shifts from the court to the countryside the entire set is hoisted upwards on a crane which raises the furniture and then seems to get stuck. Chairs, tables and machines, strung together on cables, are left to dangle in great columns of pointy steel that reach almost to the floor of what has become the forest of Arden. It’s a brilliantly weird device. And Findlay lays on a glorious comic gesture with a flock of sheep impersonated by the cast on all fours wearing cricket sweaters and going ‘baa’. It sounds crass but it’s done with a wonderful atmosphere of irony and tenderness. This text won’t suit every stomach but if you can digest three hours of literary froth you’ll find plenty to enjoy here.