Wednesday, December 28, 2011
As You Like It
Belvoir St. Theatre present AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St. Surry Hills.
Eamon Flack follows on from his 2009 production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM in the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir Street, with AS YOU LIKE IT in the Upstairs Theatre - a promotion (?)
In the program notes to the 2009, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, Mr Flack tells us that he and his company had "…embraced the spirit of Shakespeare's play and therefore not the letter." Two years later, Mr Flack and his company in presenting AS YOU LIKE IT similarly, embracing the spirit of AS YOU LIKE IT and definitely not the letter. There are similar achievements and losses in this latest venture into the Shakespearean world, as there were in the earlier production. On the night I attended, there were no programs available, so what the company intentions were with this play of Shakespeare for its audience this time, are what I can only conjecture - probably as it should be. The production, the work of art, ought to speak clearly for itself.
In fact, there are many similarities, the filleting of the original play to narrative basics; a doff of respectful cap to some poetic hall marks of the original - too famous and or good to lose - although the famous Rosalind Epilogue speech is here rejected; the substitution with the Australian habit of the comic "piss-take" bonhomie for laughter balance (refer to my post on piss-take vs risk-take in STC's NO MAN'S LAND); some casting faithfulness (Gareth Davies, Charlie Garber - oh, ominous!); other creative loyalties (Design by Alistair Watts - oh, felicitous), even to the publicity photographs for both productions - so more than less, there appears to be a creative stasis here, or a passionate belief in the commercial aphorism for an insect killer "When you're onto a good thing, stick to it". The audience I saw this production with, loved it, and gave it a rapturous applause in the thanksgiving at the curtain call, and if that is the bellwether of artistic success, than this was a signal to "stick to it".
First, to the spirit of the play and the not keeping to the letter of Shakespeare. I would hazard a guess that maybe 40% (less?) of the text as been expunged. So, what we heard, experienced was edited Bard, often replaced/substituted with clownish, sometimes boorishly banal explanations of text, deprecating self-referencing and in-jokes that were on the schematic level of knock about vaudeville, low gimmickry (a sheep ballet !), where the performers persona's were of more significance for laughs than any use of the original script or witty, writerly contemporary observation.
In truth I did warm to the first half of Mr Flack's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM in 2009, I did warm to the first half of AS YOU LIKE IT. The text, though severely edited was handled well (filleted to the bare bones of the narrative - a necessary need to keep some audiences engaged, perhaps, as too much poetry might put them off or just plain confuse them , better to dumb Shakespeare down, just like Charles and Mary Lamb, did of yore for the kiddies, than to lose these adults? Company discussion, I presume?) and even where some of the Shakespearean textual flourishes were left intact, had a mind and tongue, from all the actors, to a clarity that was rewarding to hear and relish.
The conceit of performing/staging this edited first act of exposition of the play in the auditorium worked well for me. I was seated in G Row and so had a good raked overview of the action and the actors. How well it served the audience in the lower part of the auditorium, who had to twist about in their limiting seats or just close their eyes and try to concentrate, as if they were listening to voices from a radio play, I am unsure (Is this another Belvoir Design concept that supersedes the ability of the audience to see the play - e.g. THE SEAGULL?). Even the famous Charles and Orlando wrestling match was given, briefly, at the end of the vomitory passage, off stage. The stage itself, during this necessary set up of the circumstances of the play, was a black hole, a maw of menace, like the forests of folk and fairy tales - blackly curtained walls and a faintly glowing prismatic gloss of floor reflecting dimly, devouring any lighting available. And, when finally the exiles from the Court of Frederick, the usurper, flee into the Forest of Arden, an arid expanse, except for one lonely, lowly flower, bluish tinged surround with a neon sign giving location, ARDEN, reveals itself.
There are some Shakespearean verbal jousts kept in tact and famous speeches, from the play, honoured, "All the World's a stage…" for instance, and there is a glorious visual and musical coup at the end of this part one, when the forest magically translates into a gossamer of flying petals as a signifier of the blossoming of love. Love and the games and misconstructions about it, being the principal preoccupation of Shakespeare's play.
Part two soon dwindled from the thematics and the multiple character love story drive and the shadowing melancholy of the Jacques plot, of Shakespeare's play, into the Gareth Davies and Charlie Garber Show, reminiscent of those famous sketches using Shakespeare as the frame work on the Morecambe and Wise Show in the olden days of what is now regarded as an era of Classic British television comedy. I remember one starring Glenda Jackson, in an ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA travesty. This is the same path of the previous Flack Shakespeare (hence my ominous vibes when seeing the casting). Please understand that these two men are in my estimation immensely talented. The performance of Mr Davies giving Phebe's most difficult speech ("Think not I love him...") was one of the clearest and sincerest readings I have heard. But why the sex reversal with Davies as Phebe and Shelly Lauman as Silvius? What was the directorial idea? I couldn't solve it, except as another fop to Mr Gareth's sense of a need to get into a dress for comic travesty hairy shoulders and all -very funny. Similarly, Mr Garber has a tremendous vocal dexterity that can keep time with his nimble way and wit with words. But what did the lip-synching of an Italian Opera, led by Mr Garber and some of the company, have to do with AS YOU LIKE? It seemed to be a big stretch of taste and style and a big ask of credulity from the audience who had come to see one of the great comedies in the Shakespeare canon, in the canon of romantic comedy. In this production each time these two comics appeared in their many guises and interludes, in this second part, the play came to a grinding halt for the exhibition of these men's talents and sometimes misguided sense of comic proprietary. How or why or what they were doing, other than creating broad generalised entertainment, of the Gong Show, Red Faces on "Hey, Hey It's Saturday" variety, and how it was part of the intellectual integrity of Mr Flack's view of AS YOU LIKE IT seemed extraneously peculiar and ultimately puerile and puny. Not any of it was threaded to any cogent directorial view of the play. Rather it was all a dismantling distraction for a lack of one.
That Alison Bell (Rosalind), Billie Brown (Jacques), Hamish Michael (Oliver et al),and especially Ashley Zuckerman, who gave the best Orlando, I have ever seen, managed to keep this production of this play, as mostly writ by Shakespeare, afloat, is a testament to their will for their time in the sun and security of continuity.
Ms Bell has the wit and incisive intelligence to handle the tricks of Rosalind that mark this role as a test case of greatness for the actors who have the opportunity to play her (it made Vanessa Redgrave a star in 1961 at Stratford and distinguished Angela Punch-McGregor in her transcendent reading for NIDA/Jane Street in the Aubrey Mellor production in 1978). That Ms Bell is good but not great is partly because of the kind of production she is in, where the director is keener on gaining cheap laughs than revealing the play (or if he is revealing the play, failing to find the right disciplined balance) and her vocal habit of stretching the vowels of early words in her sentences in a loud blare of trumpeted noise and following in up with a deliberate drop of pitch whilst picking up the tempo of the rest of the sentence so that it is hard to hear accurately what she is saying. That I knew the text allowed me some sense of what she was saying - it is vocal habit that I have heard her practice from play to play and it is as predictable as it is ultimately irritating and boring. It draws attention away from the belief to the character to the foibles of the actor. Ms Bell has the potential that should not be thwarted by silly, correctable habits.
Mr Brown as Duke Frederick, gives a fine impersonation of Frank Thring and saves his great skill for the speeches and scenes of Jacques that Mr Flack has kept. Hamish Michael in various responsibilities shows intelligence and theatrical skill, judgement that this edited text does not give him full flight to demonstrate. His comic turn as a sheep is delightful, but not necessarily compensation for the textual emendations that Mr Flack thought were necessary for his other tasks - I would be unhappy, indeed, if I were Mr Michael.
Mr Zuckerman as Orlando has the swaggering masculine presence married with the vulnerable grace of a love sick youth and vocal wit and skills equal, more than equal, to the opportunities of the role. His generous partnership with Ms Bell sparks and maintains one's interest in the love-sick game play of the couple. He is riveting and the lodestone of this AS YOU LIKE IT.
One of the other disappointments of this production is the musical side (Composer and Sound Designer, Stefan Gregory). In pre-publicity we were promised a new musical feast to the many songs of the Shakespeare play, but neither the lyrics or the music created here, despite the presence of Casey Donovan (I cannot see any other reason to have cast her) make any real memorable impact at all.
I guess we are going through here in Sydney, a period of theatrical production of Shakespeare that is similar, to the Nineteenth century bowdlerisations of the original. Where the texts of Shakespeare are simply appropriated, plundered for Company Branding style or celebrity creation that kind of ended with Henry Irving's productions, and petered out with the last of the actor managers, Donald Wolfit in early mid last century (honoured, remembered in the play and film THE DRESSER); to be gradually replaced by the Shakespearean scholarship of Harley Granville-Barker and various scholars at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, culminating into a gradual restoration of Shakespeare's plays as writ with the work of Gielgud, Olivier and Richardson, and the establishment of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre seasons at Stratford with Anthony Quayle and then the zeal of Peter Hall, followed by Trevor Nunn up to the modern era.
This production by Eamon Flack of AS YOU LIKE IT brings back memories of the famous excerpt of the Vincent Crummles Company's ROMEO AND JULIET seen at the end of Part One of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, adapted from the novel of Charles Dickens by David Edgar. It is ridiculously funny. It is a great crowd pleaser. It excites the 'groundlings' to inordinate mirth and appreciation but it is not Shakespeare as intended. The interpolations are outrageous. This company of actors led by Mr Flack have taken hold of this great play and dwindled it to a popular Christmas party piece of the party pieces of the actor's naughty talents. The 'Infant Phenomenas' reigning supreme. There is much to be gained from seeing this silly version of the play, but it is at a cost to the great art and craft and challenge of the original text of William Shakespeare. To get it to work as writ is the dream of every artist and it is surely the objective challenge for any acting company and any director with an integral sense of responsibility to the author.
This is the second production of Shakespeare by Mr Flack for Belvoir St and I long to see him do a play without gratuitous gags, at the expense of the play which are masterpieces that have stood the test of time. And will stand the test of Mr Flack and his bent to avoid the possibilities of doing the plays as writ. Those of us with memories of the Old Tote production in 1970 by the enfant terrible of that period, Jim Sharman, can remember the comic tricks and liberties he took to popularise this play (Peter Rowley as Touchstone on roller skates!), but can also remember the magic wholeness of the play as one written by Shakespeare (Darlene Johnson was the Rosalind). Cheek, invention, discipline, respect and scholarship. All these gifts created art worthy of the writer. That was Mr Sharman.
Like the experience of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM in 2009, at Belvoir, AS YOU LIKE IT began with all the promise of interest and contemporary integrity one could wish for, but dwindled ultimately to a carefree abandon to, from my point of view, a kind of cultural vandalism. It was fun and a success for most of my audience, but not for me. And not for all.