Walking into the Roundhouse Theatre in Camden, I hear the strains of a busker. He is trendy (but not too trendy), and next to him is a sign that reads “It’s not about the money.” Classic Camden: earnestly ironic. While he sings lines from “Blowin’ In the Wind” I glance through my program. Trendy busker looks suspiciously like Jonjo O’Neill, the actor playing Orlando in the RSC’s As You Like It. It seems the theatre-going experience is starting early tonight.
As You Like It works well as an ensemble piece, and features the strongest acting yet from the RSC company. Katy Stephens is a powerful Rosalind, and her exploration of what it means to be a woman playing a woman playing a man leads to new insights and fresh encounters with the text. Mariah Gale is a talented actress, and she makes the most of her role as Celia, even if it is only listlessly playing with a stick while watching Rosalind toy with Orlando. The Rosalind-Celia scenes allow two very gifted actresses free range. Director Michael Boyd creates for Celia an erotic dream, as the court members imitate a hunt and play on “horn” imagery. The dream sequence sets the mood for Celia’s sudden love for the reformed Oliver (Charles Aitken).
Busking O’Neill makes for an endearing unrequited lover, and Forbes Masson’s Jaques does melancholy a good turn. But this is a play with two, not one, fool-like characters. Richard Katz’s Touchstone is a clown repressed into dark colors. He wears elongated black shoes and enters in a black straight-jacket, but his most arresting feature is his wild hair—wiry, like a clown wig, but black and graying. He is both physically comedic and bitter. On the whole, the cast conveys a sense of well-being and jollity—a few times trying to make each other corpse, but managing to keep the play together.
While the acting is stellar, especially from the principals, the set is lackluster. Tom Piper’s design is bare and white. The first hint of Arden is the tangly bramble engulfing Touchstone at his (hilarious) entrance. As the production moves on, the back wall slowly unhinges to reveal hints of forest, but has more of an appearance of planks and two-by-fours. Also confusing and unexplained is the costuming choice. The production begins in the Duke’s court, populated with courtiers (male) dressed in plush-black Elizabethan garb—high fashion of ruffs and drop-pearl earrings. The court enters in a kind of shuffle step, highlighting later the discussion of country versus court mannerisms—underscored to humorous effect when Corin (Geoffrey Freshwater) during the interval bloodily skins and cleans a rabbit, and then tells Touchstone that kissing hands as a sign of greeting, while perhaps appropriate to the court, would be less appealing in the country. But as the production moves to the forest of Arden, we come across the exiled court dressed in Russian-flavored costumes, with swathes of leather hide. The actors carry rifles. As the action progresses, Orlando, previously costumed in swagger-boots and breeches, switches to his trendier appearance, maybe to match Rosalind’s adventurer/aviator scarf and loose shirt. Toward the end of her career as a man, she is sporting Converse trainers. In the play’s final moments, soldiers from the court enter, still in black, but now in soldier uniforms of the present day, carrying machine guns. In this two-hour traffic of the stage (well, three hours) we have moved inexplicably some four hundred years. All of the individual parts are well done, but the concept does not cohere.
A cultural note: there is a throw-away gag that, to my American sensibilities, is offensive. Touchstone, attempting to arrange a marriage between him and Audrey (Sophie Russell), calls upon a priest to perform the office. In the production, the priest arises out of one of the many trap doors, gangly and goofy-looking, and bearing a cross—on fire. Did no-one explain to Boyd that a burning cross is one of the most potent and racially offensive symbols of the last century?
Unintended (I hope) offense aside, the RSC’s As You Like It is full of joy and contains a well-thought-out exploration of gender-bending in Stephens’s performance. Just don’t bother bringing money for the busker.