In last year's inaugural Bridge Project Sam Mendes directed The Winter's Tale
, but apparently that didn't get the play off his chest as this year's As You Like It
feels, for its first half at least, as if it's a production of the later play. And this production is, undoubtedly, a game of two halves. It should probably be noted in advance that As You Like It
is rather dear to me as the first Shakespeare comedy I saw on stage, and so the one that made me realise that the plays were actually funny today
, not just tragedies without the deaths, whose jokes had staled centuries ago. So I'm predisposed to have a problem with a version that, for its first 75 minutes or so, determinedly suppresses all the humour. Mendes focuses on the banishment of Duke Senior by his brother, and Oliver de Bois' malice, as his starting point for an incredibly melancholy take, punctuated by having the scene changes done slowly in darkness, with mournful music playing. The performances are all kept very low-key, and even when we move to the forest this is a wintery Arden full of skeletal trees, and Mendes even throws in an extra death to make sure we go into the interval with a spring in our step. It's awkward 'cause I'm all for being innovative but I just can't get behind this morose take; it also makes a bit of a nonsense of Jaques (Stephen Dillane) because why do the rest of the court tease him for being melancholy, when they're all walking around with faces like a cat's arse too? vanessaw
can confirm I was rather ranty in the interval about Mendes putting his midlife crisis on stage to depress everyone; she herself asked if I was sure it was meant to be a comedy. In fact during the first half I often heard that most depressing of sounds in a Shakespeare comedy: Audience members forcing themselves to chuckle because they were sure there were meant to be jokes here somewhere.
With the interval placed after Orlando arrives at the exiled Duke's court, Mendes' conceit is to have time pass, and for it to be spring when we rejoin them, for a mercifully cheerier conclusion to the story. Having been weirdly subdued in the opener, Juliet Rylance finally gets a chance to show why Rosalind is such a great character. Unfortunately I found Christian Camargo's Orlando rather mumbly throughout, and Thomas Sadoski not a particularly funny Touchstone. Vanessa said she was finding it tricky following the Americans' lines - I didn't think this was a general feature of the US half of the cast, with Michelle Beck's Celia and Alvin Epstein's Adam/Martext particularly clearly spoken and delivered with good timing. Edward Bennett, aka David Tennant's Hamlet
understudy, uses the fact that he's such a good comic actor to get away with the tricky role of Oliver de Bois. His mouth-to-teeth ratio is still too unevenly balanced for him to be properly fanciable, but he does look quite good with his shirt off.
The second half, which might as well be an entirely different play, goes some way to redeeming this production and actually has the laughs that had been lacking, but even then I can't say there was a single performance that exceeded those I've seen in the past. Reading the programme notes on the way home, the essay (by James Shapiro) is rather sniffy about As You Like It
, the barely-hidden subtext being that this is one of the lesser plays and oh well, let's do what we can with it. For my money, flaws though they may be, the thin plot, various characters having sudden and unexplained changes of heart, a bloody lion turning up in a French forest for some reason, all make up a rather demented fairytale, and don't detract from the fact that along the way there's one great comic sequence after another. I'm all in favour of finding the dark side to plays but to me there's something fundementally wrongheaded about sucking the joy out of something in the belief that it elevates it. Maybe Shakespeare just wrote a play that was a bit of bonkers fun.As You Like It
by William Shakespeare is in repertory until the 21st of August at the Old Vic.