FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Kimberley Sykes, Stephen Brimson-Lewis’ set like all the productions is mostly clear of anything more than a few props, bare-boards with different woods, strikingly lit by Bretta Gerecke who also takes on the techni-coloured costumery and wigs. Tim Sutton’s mainly vocal score winds round the solos set-pieces and climactic Hymen sequence. It’s all directed by Lindsey Miller and Connor Fogel (Gareth Ellis originating music director), with sound design by Jonathan Ruddick, recreated by Steven Atkinson. It comprises deep tubular sonics, as if sourced by IRCAM and the Pompidou Centre. Ayse Tashkiran’s movement is supplemented by fight-directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown. And the giant puppet design’s by Mervyn Millar. Till January 18th 2020
As You Like It is so deliciously aware of its performative self that it might seem a surprise that some of Kimberley Sykes’s RSC staging – now transferred to the Barbican – hasn’t been tried before.
So there’s metatheatrical when the whole auditorium’s flooded back with light, with actors tannoyed to positions. Great, but it last 30 seconds 20 minutes in. Gender performative, and fourth-wall audience participation – being dragged on stage to hold up letters? In a chilly November it might seem warmed-up summer Globe.
This is retro-fitting Rosalind’s epilogue back through the play; and there’s care, even nervousness over the language that the robust Globe canters over in all its own glorious gender fluidity. The RSC tries something different. It’s often when it doesn’t that it succeeds so well, and when it does that it gleams with new possibilities.
Lucy Phelps’ Rosalind is one of the reasons to invoke summer through the chill. A stunning contrast to her Isabella, playing concurrently, Phelps confirms her range and power. Here she’s sassy, fluid, funny, physical, skittering over the stage with tremulous manners only just holding her desires in: till she doesn’t. Her quickfire speeches compass the whole stage as she skirls round it. When she’s furious with Phoebe’s note via poor Sylvia, shredding it – touchingly Sylvia gathers it all up again – you can see she shudders with its violence and betrayal. And when she sits and sounds how many fathoms deep she’s in love, it’s explosive and ought to bring a tear. Phelps sounds enormous fathoms of the fathomless Rosalind.
One good reason is Sophie Khan Levy’s Celia: overtly sexy, sassily dressed, even more sassy in the world’s mores, she’s Rosalind’s worldly half, just as Rosalind sounds plummets to the nature of love and being a woman. No foil, Levy’s Celia is fiercely loyal, cajoles Rosalind and their chemistry is such that Rosalind’s most passionate declarations come even more naturally in her presence. It’s the core relationship here, a ‘sweet coz’ who’s nearly Rosalind’s equal, would be if she’d fallen in love first. Levy rolls her eyes, makes all those bestie-friend gambits through Celia’s lens, and snatches at her own chance of love.
David Ajao, supreme and supremely-voiced in Measure for Measure’s Pompey, seems vocally softer-grained here. He nimbly defeats Graeme Roberts’ massy Charles (fight-directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown make this fluke convincing). Thereafter he’s puppyish, appealingly trip-tongued, ardent and warm-hearted with plenty of double-taking to mimic Phelps: perfect Orlando prerequisites. It’s as if this time there’s a faint gauze in front of his nature.
Leo Wan’s elder brother Oliver measures puny next to him, here lucidly peevish too as he’s bested every which way. Wan’s transformation from brat to bruv is movingly accomplished with more than ragged attire and a vocal modulation to soften even Celia. Richard Clews, his male opposite is moving and imposing as Orlando’s servant Adam who was once towering, now fighting off a tottering.
Anthony Byrne delights in Dukes in two plays: here the affable and widely-registering Duke Frederick and the more narrowly angry Duke Senior, whose snarl he delivers with a psychotic edge. Byrne’s active and commanding, able to sound those generous notes that balance lèse–majesté with laissez-faire.
Sandy Grierson liberated from Angelo in Measure for Measure is one of the production’s delights, a Billy Connolly on acid, zanily physical, ad-libbing more than most (you’ll see a lot of that) he rings Touchstone’s language with a salacious clangour. He can sound laddishly nasty depths too. He’s shorn of his Lies circumstantial and direct speech – often omitted but here a pity since he’d relish that.
Charlotte Arrowsmith’s Audrey is sexy and touching enough to stick like a burr to this Touchstone: there’s less raunch more chemistry. You feel they could make a go of it. It’s too bad Tom Dawze is not only her jilted and bullied William, but her signer too: a new advent of pathos.
Of the Arden dwellers Sophie Stanton’s measured Jacques stills everything to attention round her as she speaks. Her Seven Ages is ingeniously shorn of beards for ‘hair’ and ‘lover’ for ‘mistress’ rendering it attractively universal. Stanton holds the stage with quiet dignity alternating with a quizzical rather than scornful censure of Orlando’s tree-wounding. She doesn’t quite sound the bass-note of melancholia of some, but measures the pathos of farewell touchingly.
That muted tendresse between Jacques and Duke Frederick might have been explored more too; the impossibility perhaps of love in their respective stations. Arden allows everything and Sykes can lack boldness with its fluidity.
A scornful Phoebe Laura Elsworthy bucks the trend of not being for all markets, though her despised Sylvia in this production (not Sylvius) – a warm-hearted Amelia Donkor – really is as Rosalind suggests too good not to seek another. Patrick Brennan’s Corin bucks Touchstone’s scorn of shepherding and Aaron Thiara’s Dennis and third brother Jacques de Bois sound believably preppy as the youngest. Karina Jones gets righteously Welsh as the pope-garbed Martext, and Alex Jones provides the hapless menace of all enforcers at court.
Though Levy sings engagingly a couple of times and Brookes once, it’s Emily Johnstone whose singing provides lyric stillness you could willingly waste your time in. As Amiens she can hardly walk straight for padding, visibly aroused by wrestlers and by Orlando. Morphed into Le Beau, Johnstone’s pure-toned delivery of the lyrics is worth singing about as is the whole score.
Stephen Brimson-Lewis’ set is mostly clear of anything more than a few props including a circular green Astro-Turf, bare-boards with different woods, occasional use of the gallery with a blue and green dais of Art Deco shell shape as a backdrop: which distinguishes it from the monochrome say of the Measure for Measure production also in repertory, or bright turquoise and sumptuary of The Taming of the Shrew. It evokes backstage briefly as we’ve seen, then fades.
It’s the most strikingly lit of all three productions by Bretta Gerecke – smoky twilit stables pierced with a lamp, sudden glooms stabbed through as the whole auditorium’s blacked out or floodlit.
Gerecke also takes on the techni-coloured costumery and wigs. Tim Sutton’s mainly vocal score winds round the solos set-pieces and climactic Hymen sequence. It’s all directed by Lindsey Miller and Connor Fogel, with sound design by Jonathan Ruddick, recreated by Steven Atkinson. That’s striking too: deep tubular sonics, as if sourced by IRCAM and the Pompidou Centre. Ayse Tashkiran’s movement is supplemented by fight-directors Bown-Williams and Cooper-Brown. And the giant puppet design’s by Mervyn Millar. It looked briefly imposing before falling flat on its face.
There are places where this production loses its way a bit, and its nerve a little. The Noises Off backstage moment never recurs and simply hangs as unused metaphor. Anxiety over gender performative elements explains further removal of beards in Rosalind’s truncated epilogue, and ‘the love you bear to women’ gets concertina’d without gender, as if hetero-normative comment might offend. Other more gender-fluid productions don’t worry and inflect ironies where needed.
Likewise the adaptation to ‘and I for no Phoebe’ as opposed to ‘no woman’ is unnecessary. In this production the essential gender sightlines remain unchanged. The only real problem is insoluble. If Phoebe’s now to marry Sylvia not Sylvius, then why should Ganymede’s turning to Rosalind have proved a sudden bar to Phoebe wanting her? For this Phoebe desire is performative and genderless. Following that disconsolate revelation might have been an act of courage too dark-hued and discordant, but it remains.
For Phelps and Levy above all, and close on them Byrne, Grierson and Johnstone’s singing with scarcely a weak moment or cast member, this is a treasurably joyful As You Like It. Not all disagreeables evaporate, and there’s fathoms to return to. But nearly three hours to willingly waste your time discovering why burns off a premature winter.