In the age of the ‘Occupy’ movement and Time magazine awarding ‘the protester’ person of the year, it was only matter of time before someone would set a Shakespeare production in one of the many protest camps that have sprung up all over the world. This is what is happening in London, at the White Bear Theatre in London, where independent director Marianna Vogt has assembled a cast and put on a credible production of As You Like It, which runs for five days up to 29 January.
As You Like It contains one of Shakespeare’s most bizarre and irrational plots, and it is always a challenge to convey the various plot threads and keep the audience engaged. The play's absurdity plus the eccentric characters are what gives the play its charm, and the audience has to suspend belief to enter anyone’s vision of Arden. Vogt even writes, ‘At least in Midsummer, magic is a plot device’ which shows the challenge directors face.
Firstly, it has to be said Vogt’s vision of equating the Occupy London camp (which sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral) to the Forest of Arden is poorly executed. There are some interesting and clear parallels between the two places worthy of exploration, but this potential is not realised. Both Arden the Occupy camp juxtapose the order and rules of their relative established worlds with a leaderless and semi-wild alternative. Both places are havens for the dispossessed and the idealists who have been thrown together, and they both have an eclectic madness, with music, performance and an overtly anti-establishment liberal attitude. However this production doesn’t quite get it right. A large tent sits bizarrely on the side of the stage and has no part in the production (it even blocked some of the audience’s view) and without the painted London skyline, you could be anywhere. There were no other props or apparel to mark it as ‘Occupy London’ and apart from the token handing out of leaflets to the audience, the concept didn’t come across at all. Some decoration such as posters or anti capitalist banners would have made the setting more apparent and added to the atmosphere of what was a very empty stage. This is not a major problem as it does not detract from the overall experience, but the setting is pushed heavily in all the materials, director notes etc so it would have been preferable if as much effort were spent here as on the performances.
For those in need of refreshment, the story can be cut in to two main plot threads. The first story is that of Rosalind (Clare Langford), the daughter of the deposed Duke Senior (Yvonne Riley) who flees from court and chooses to disguise herself as a young man called Ganymede to live in the Forest of Arden. She is accompanied by her cousin Celia (Gabriella Curtis), whose own father Frederick (Jeryl Burgess) took over the Duchy, and who banishes them both. Rosalind is already in love with Orlando (Will Wheeler), main protagonist of the second story after seeing him beat the Duke’s preferred wrestler. He is in open conflict with his brother Oliver (Ryan Wichert), who was supposed to be his guardian. Orlando feels let down and flees to the forest after learning Oliver intends to have him killed. After meeting the various wenches, shepherds and her father who live in the forest with their own dramas and love stories, Rosalind is made aware of Orlando’s presence in the forest and disguised still as Ganymede greets him and tries to cure him of his love for Rosalind. She does this all still wearing her disguise.
On the side stories, Rosalind and Celia’s co-traveler Touchstone (Daniel Yabut) has fallen in love with a local called Audrey (Kim Maloney) and plans to get married. There is also the story of Phoebe (Kate Bancroft), a local girl who is in love with Ganymede, but is loved by Silvius (Jeffrey Ho). Orlando, presumably maddened by love now tries to woo Ganymede, as in his head, he has become Rosalind (who of course is Ganymede’s real identity). Amidst the confusion, Oliver appears in the forest and meets with Rosalind and Celia. He recounts a tale of how Orlando saved him from a lion as he walked through the forest, but was injured. In the process, he and Celia take a liking to each other and fall in love. To resolve all of this, Rosalind/Ganymede gathers everyone and orders them to be married. She tells Orlando Rosalind will appear at the wedding and Phoebe and Silvius will be married as Ganymede will no longer be around. At the wedding, Ganymede is revealed to be Rosalind and all the couples are married by Hymen, one of the gods that lives in the forest. It is revealed that Duke Frederick has converted and become a monk, therefore handing the Duchy back to Senior who can return from Arden.
Throughout the play, there are substantial jumps in the plot, but the characters are vivid and well performed. In the beginning, Wheeler’s Orlando is nervous and stays rooted to the spot far too often, but as the play develops he becomes very accomplished and funny as the love-sick gentleman. The dialogue between Celia and Rosalind at the start seems forced, overly intimate and with too much emphasis on physical actions and exaggerated expressions, but again, both improve drastically as the play goes on. Saying this, Langford is an exceptional actress and is brilliant at the end, especially with the way she masters the epilogue. She and Wheeler have a natural chemistry which makes their love convincing, but funny at the same time. Wheeler excels with the lovelorn element of his character and provides much of the humour. With As You Like It, it is a challenge to differentiate the performances among the various couples, but Vogt manages to tease the best out of her characters' individual quirks.
Yabut as Touchstone is fantastic, his delivery and acrobatics dominate the stage, and he is matched with a very feisty Audrey--they are by far the most physical of the couples. Celia’s role only develops late in the play and does the ‘quiet in love’ well, with sighs, slow delivery and flirtation. Wichert has probably the hardest role as he has to accurately convince the audience he converts from scheming elder brother to kind and caring with no explanation. Wichert fails in this respect, and his sudden love for Celia doesn't fully ring true. Regarding the other characters, the overall funniest pairing is Jeffrey Yu’s performance as Silvius. His overdone accent and childish manner are brilliant to watch, and partnered with the brilliant Kate Bancroft as Phoebe, their energy and pace keep up people’s interest in these side plots, which Vogt successfully integrates into the main Rosalind and Orlando thread.
Despite setting it in an overtly political arena, some areas of the play’s political subtext are less explored. The famed religious satire is semi-disregarded. Other subtexts are fully played up, such as the close relationship between Celia and Rosalind. The political intrigue and the mistrust are glossed over in favour of the love story. The role of the Dukes (played by women) is minimised as Vogt focuses on the stronger parts of the text and succeeds in creating a surrealist and absurd love story.
The lighting (designed by Brian Merry) makes effective use of what is available (the White Bear Theatre is in the rear of a pub), with dimming and spots used to full effect. The costumes are all modern-dress, the only real way the actors allude to the Occupy camp, and the contrast between the main cast’s scruffy student-esque clothes and denim with the formal suits worn by those in the court is quite effective in showing the contrast between Arden and the civilised world. As mentioned above, there are many things the production could have done to decorate the space better, and it seems a shame that the space is not used more creatively.
Where the production excels is in the use of music and the way the actors interact with the audience and props. Rather than use a CD deck, a backing track is played by Owen Nolan (who also appears as the shepherd Corin) on an acoustic guitar. The various other songs are performed with flutes and song, and the natural live music adds much atmosphere.
This play would have been better off not being sold as Shakespeare meets Occupy, as the production does not do enough to create the link. Some further decoration and a clearer highlighting of the play's political subtext could have created more pointed drama, matching the energy and the fun of the performances. Despite this, Vogt makes a memorable production, especially in the creative playing of the epilogue after the curtain call.