As You Like It at the Barbican Theatre review ***

As You Like It

Barbican Theatre, 15th January 2020

As You Like It? Not really like this. Mind you I have yet to see a production of the play that really bowled me over. The NT production from 2016 directed by Polly Findlay looked great, office chairs becoming the Forest of Arden, and reminded us of the immense talent of Rosalie Craig and Patsy Ferran, but didn’t quite do it for me and I have a vague recollection of a previous RSC outing with Niamh Cusack as Rosalind and David Tennant as Touchstone. So maybe it is the play that doesn’t quite persuade.

I get that Will’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality and the rules of attraction still intrigues and resonates. And I get that, as a paean to the joy of love, and specifically the slippery notion of “love at first sight” there isn’t much better in the Shakespeare, or any other, canon. And it has a couple of pukka roles for women. As a generally miserable f*cker I can’t help but be attracted to eeyore Jaques and there are plenty of laughs, though they don’t always land from the lips of the sketchier supporting characters and some are just too knowing. What I don’t really buy is the whole pastoral, simpler life vibe, the magical forest is more convincing in AMND, and, absent Rosalind and Celia, I have never been convinced by many of the relationships, courtly and common, of which there are too many to really round out character. The banishments, and reconciliations, of Fred and Duke Senior, and the du Bois boys (here Leo Wan and Aaron Thiara), isn’t properly explained or resolved. The songs are a bit ropey. The prose and verse inversion and switching can be distracting and adds to the bitty, “a string of chance encounters”, quality of the play.

There are however plenty of other WS plays where similar criticisms might be levelled. But plot, character, language, message and spectacle, or some combination thereof normally finds a way to lift you up and into the world of breathless, nothing else matters, concentration that is the magic of the Bard. So maybe as I say I just need the right production of AYLI.

Here Kimberley Sykes, the brains behind the RSC Dido from 2017 which the Tourist annoyingly overlooked, has offered up a timeless Arden, supported by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design, which focuses on the key connections, between the excellent Lucy Phelps’s confident Rosalind, her forthright bessie coz Sophie Khan Levy and a gentle, though ardent, Orlando in the form of David Ajao. Sophie Stanton, as a detached, almost inert, female Jaques, was polished, and Sandy Grierson, once again, stood out with his grotesquely camp Touchstone.. A whole bunch of gender switching for the other roles left the characters even less defined than normal, and, whilst it was not difficult for an actor of Antony Byrne’s quality to pull off the roles of both Dukes, I am not sure I got the point in a play already stuffed with mistaken identities.

There were a lot of nice visual touches, but there were also times when the cast seemed to be keen to move on to the next scene, lines a bit too hurried, and some of the blocking felt a little unconnected on the roomy Barbican stage. And then there was the lighting, designed, as were the costumes, by Bretta Gerecke, which was often the wrong side of insistent. And then there was the audience participation. And a giant puppet of Hymen, god of marriage, looming over Lucy Phelps as she delivers her, slightly desperate, epilogue at the end.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Barbican review ***

The Taming of the Shrew

Barbican Theatre, 2nd January 2020

What to do with Taming of the Shrew. Pretend the framing device with Sly deceived by Milord gets you off the hook. Not sure audiences buy that. Mine the text very carefully and add detail through direction which undermines the misogyny. That takes real skill. Ironically play up the “comedy”, and cast Kate and Petrucio’s final lines as a “show” to mask them coming together, and hope the audience keeps up. Play it straight, as nasty as you dare, even venturing into dark psycho-sexual territory, and hope the audience sees that Will S, as we surely must assume, him otherwise being the unparalleled oracle of the human condition, meant for us to recoil at both the story and our reaction to it. (Though remember John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor with The King’s Men felt compelled to write a now rarely performed response to Shrew, The Woman’s Prize, in which Petruchio’s second wife “tames” him). That can work but don’t be surprised if modern, as contemporary opinion did, criticises.

Or change gender as here? One of the best versions of the play that I saw was Edward Hall’s all male version for Propellor. Sly (Vince Leigh) became Petruchio, the misogyny is initially ridiculed in a genuinely funny production, but then becomes more menacing, punky Kate (Dan Wheeler) continually fights back making his/her final submission even uglier. The point being that Sly will continue the cycle of male violence outside the play.

In this RSC production directed by Justin Audibert, not for the first time, the genders are reversed, with Claire Price now a swaggering, derring-do Petruchia, and, names unchanged, Joseph Arkley the very pliant Katherine, the object of her undoubted affection, and James Cooney his more attractive and preening brother, Bianco. Padua becomes a matriarchy, pronouns are judiciously changed, gags retained, but it still doesn’t properly scrutinise the dominance/gaslighting power plays at the heart of the action. We already know what is wrong with or without role reversal.

Elsewhere though the inversion adds sheen, notably the wooing of Bianco by the salacious Gremia (Sophie Stanton complete with comedy glide pace Mark Rylance’s Olivia), the inept Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) aided by her capable sidekick/double Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and Hortensia (Amelia Donkor). The deceptions, rivalries and put downs all entertain. Amanda Harris as Mum Baptista, Amy Trigg as Lucentia’s other servant Biondella and Melody Brown as Vincentia, Lucentia’s mum all have fun with the roles.

The production looks terrific thanks to Stephen Brimston Lewis’s set (here seen to best effect when compared to the other RSC productions in the season) and Hannah Clark’s costumes. Composer Ruth Chan gets away with her “rock Renaissance” vibe. And Alice Cridland’s marshalling of wigs, hair and make-up mightily impressed. But none of this really solves for the fact that simply reversing and softening the genders and positing a social order that doesn’t, nor ever did, exist, can’t magic away the central offence. Which, in itself, is a lesson.