By Gustavo Subero
The problem with watching a production on the first day of previews is that one knows there are mistakes bound to be made, as well as the potential risk of watching a production that hasn’t ironed out the little things that make a good production into an outstanding one. However, the National Theatre’s new production of the classic Shakespearean comedy of disguise and love (the first time in 30 years that the National Theatre stages this piece) As You Like It has more than a few areas to iron out before press night.
The play opens in a busy office environment where many employees are working at their desks and getting on with office work. For the non-Shakespearean aficionado this setting is rather confusing, as it’s hard to understand how this office comes to represent the French duchy where the first part of the play is supposed to be set. If anything, this setting is rather reminiscent of texts like 1984 or even A brave new world, thus making it harder to fully understand the actions that will form the core of the narrative. It is even more confusing to work out how this office becomes the very space where the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles takes place (although it cannot be denied that director Polly Findlay’s vision of this specific scene is very clever as the set quickly transforms from office space into a wrestling ring, while Charles is presented as a professional masked wrestler using the type of iconography characteristic of the American WWE).
However, soon the confusion re-enters the narrative as, after the wrestling match is over, the following scene sees Rosalind and Celia plan their escapade from the kingdom in their pyjamas while walking around the very office where the action had occurred thus far. Undeniably, the morphing of the office into the Forest of Arden (shown by means of all the furniture being attached and connected through metal wires that are pulled from the ceiling of the theatre until it all dangles in strips of furniture across the stage) evidences a degree of creativity on the part of set designer Lizzie Clachan. However, the production attended for this review was stopped shortly after the beginning of the second act, as some of the furniture was hanging in what was considered a dangerous way. The ten-minute pause that followed left one wondering whether it was worth to have such an intricate arrangement to depict the fictional forest in which the rest of the play takes place or did it become just a bit too unnecessarily gimmicky.
Undoubtedly, this is a very charming and original production in which director Findlay makes clever use of supporting actors and even technical staff to provide (visibly and onstage) special and sound effects that provide a more magical and imaginative recreation of the Forest of Arden. Rosalie Craig plays the lead role, Rosalind, with wit and charm, and her comedic timing is impeccable. Yet there’s something missing in her performance that would help provide more depth to the character. Joe Bannister’s Orlando was also played with charm (the reader can see a pattern developing here) but also lacked the personality layers and the depth of character that would have made him a more intriguing and interesting nobleman in exile. Surprisingly, it is Celia who steals the show, as the performance by Patsy Ferran is impeccable. Her comedic timing and her delivery are magnificent, while most of the biggest laughs come at her courtesy. Overall, this is a good production that delivers well with solid performances and some nice, touching moments throughout, but sadly sees the treatment of the this text done in a slightly superficial manner as if comedy was not worth of some depth of content.