As You Like It
By SAM GRAYDON
I recently went to see Polly Findlay’s much-acclaimed version of As You Like It at the National Theatre. On stage as we took our seats were garishly coloured carpeting, desks, chairs and pot plants: every scene of Act One was set in an office. We were perhaps to conclude that City workers were modern society’s aristocracy, but overall this staging added little to the play – in some places it was even detrimental. The wrestling scene (featuring heavy metal and a neon blue lucha libre outfit) was not just inconsistent with the office furniture but also physically constrained by it. That said, as the action moved to the Forest of Arden, the tables and chairs played a crucial part in a very impressive set-change.
In fact, it was so impressive it didn’t work. The performance was stopped for ten minutes so that a technical problem could be dealt with.
It may be unfair of me to pick up on this quirk of the evening (especially as the change of scene really was extraordinary to watch), but I do so because as people in hard hats filed out to deal with one of Arden’s immense trees, my friend (who had never seen Shakespeare in the theatre before) turned to me and asked: “Now this definitely isn’t in the play, is it?” And I could hear quite a few mutterings of a similar nature around me. It seemed that many in the audience would have patiently sat through the impromptu construction work as an interesting adaptation.
In an earlier TLS blogpost, Michael Caines compared the Rose Playhouse’s recent production of The Devil Is an Ass with the NT’s As You Like It, and guessed that “the set alone for Shakespeare's comedy cost more than [the] entire budget for Jonson’s”. But I would add that a big budget can sometimes distract us from what makes a play great, and can lead us to expect and excuse gimmicky additions to an otherwise perfectly good performance. The elaborate effects and the enjoyable dance and songs did make As You Like It a lively spectacle, but it was not this that made the performance such a good one.
The acting was excellent – Rosalie Craig’s Rosalind was commanding and charismatic, and Paul Chahidi expertly captured the mixture of laughable and pitiable offered by Jacques. Considering that Findlay likened the play to a “1599 version of The Fast Show”, it was impressive that she made the disparate plot-threads clear throughout. There were moments of sketch-like farce – the cast crawling around in white Aran-knit jumpers pretending to be Corin’s flock of sheep, for example – but such moments fitted in easily with the play’s profound reflections on time and love. My friend and I agreed that it was the acting and direction, much more than the showmanship, that made Findlay’s production so enjoyable.
In the hubbub of opinion that followed the performance I overheard an exchange that summarized the various conversations of the exiting audience beautifully: “Well that was a lot of faffing about wasn’t it?” “Yes. But I liked it”.