Thursday, 29 October 2015

'As You Like It' at the National Theatre

'As You Like It' at the National Theatre only started in preview on Monday this week but we went to see it tonight so this was the third time they've done a full performance in front of an audience. Might I saw 'wow'?

Before-hand I was trying to think how I knew the story to the play - I've never seen it so must have read it at some point. It hasn't played at the National for 30 years so it's well overdue a showing. Shakespeare tells eternal stories and, with him, sometimes it's the writing or story-telling or clever plotting that really stands out and sometimes it's the whole lot. There's some wonderful writing in this play (such as the 'All the world's a stage…' speech) but there are also some lovely characters and that's partly the casting and production.

It's the tale of Rosalind (daughter of the deposed Duke) and Orlando (son of a knight loyal to the Duke), our young lovers who meet once and can't tell each other of the love bomb that dropped because they don't know how to. Then Orlando needs to flee since his older brother plots to kill him and Rosalind is banished by the usurper Duke and they both end up in the Forest of Arden. Except Rosalind is dressed as a man to help protect her and her friend Celia (the usurper Duke's daughter). Throughout the forest are various lovers and would-be lovers that appear and disappear on an ongoing basis as well as the deposed Duke and his followers. After much to-ing and fro-ing our young lovers get together and are married with three other sets of lovers (including Orlando's older brother who's seen the error of his ways and marries Celia). There's a lot going on in this tale, with love, usurpation, pretence and country v city life all being themes within the play.

So that's the story (sort of) but what about the production? When I walked into the theatre I hated it. Awful! The set is a bright office with a multi-coloured carpet, computer screens everywhere and actors already sitting at desks doing, I suppose, 'acting'. I'm getting bored with this current trend of actors being on stage being busy before the thing starts. But the set was awful. Clashing colours, loads of desks for the actors to manoeuvre round… an accident waiting to happen. On comes Orlando, our hero, dressed as an office cleaner. And then he opens his mouth and out comes this poetry - the setting is all wrong, it jars and maybe that's what it's meant to do but I didn't like it. Despite hating the set, the writing and acting kept me engaged.

When Rosalind and Orlando escaped separately and headed to Arden is when the magic happened. The ceiling of the office started to rise and pulled all the office furniture after it, using the tremendous height of the Olivier Theatre to pull the furniture up and up so it started to take the shape of the gnarled trees of the forest. The transformation was gob-smacking! And then there were actors in chairs up in the trees playing the parts of the wind, the birds and whatever background noises were needed. I was all 'wow!' about it. That was spectacular! But I didn't see what happened to the awful office carpet - where did that go?

There aren't any production photos available yet but it'll be a thrill to see them - especially a video of the transformation scene, that's what I'd like. There are all sorts of oddities in the production, like a herd of sheep invading the stage at one point which is half the cast on their hands and knees wearing big wooly jumpers. At first I was all 'whaaaat?' but then I loved them. I *want* a herd of sheep now, please. How inspired and playful and fitting for this play.

The writing is wonderful but it's the actors that bring it to life and I really liked Rosalind and Orlando played by Rosalie Craig and Joe Bannister - I thought they made a really charming couple. I know who wears the trousers in that house. Patsy Ferran was great fun as Celia, playing her very modern and knowing and by no means just anyone's sidekick. I last saw Patsy as 'Jim Hawkins' in 'Treasure Island' at the National last year. Of the minor characters I liked old Adam, played by Patrick Godfrey, as Orlando's loyal servant, who gave a very touching performance and Ken Nwosu as the shepherd in love with his shepherdess who spurns him. Ken's desperation to please, to love his shepherdess was almost lip-trembling in it's tenderness (someone to watch, I think).

The final word must go to Lizzie Clachan for her set design and the astonishing transformation from office to forest. I mean, wow! I sat with my mouth open, gawping at it in front of me. But Lizzie, what happened to the carpet? Where did it go?

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