Royal Shakespeare Company
The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon
As You Like It
23rd of April 2009
In 2007, Neil Bartlett directed a version of “Twelfth Night” for the RSC which held tightly together in the first half of the performance but tended to be more unwieldy after the interval as the drama led us out into countryside celebrations and a hippy-chic interpretation of some of the songs in the second half. It was bright, colourful but a little too flamboyant for its own good. Watching Michael Boyd’s take on “As You Like It” at the Courtyard in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I began to wonder if this production was going to fall into the same problems. Tight and precisely directed in the city action of the first scenes, a little too wild in places as the action transferred to the forest in later scenes.
However, there are two reasons why the later production floats whilst “Twelfth Night” floundered. Boyd allows the script the place of pre-eminence that it should always have in Shakespeare. Bartlett’s over-elaborate ideas (causing more members of the cast than necessary to be cross-dressing and a troubadour in Feste who wanted to be Bob Dylan but wound up being more Dylan the Rabbit) tended to shout louder than the text). Perhaps more importantly, Boyd cast Katy Stephens as Rosalind and her ebullient, masterful performance really carries the day. In Stephens, previously seen in the Histories Cycle for the RSC and on TV in London’s Burning and The Bill, the RSC has a real find who will be continue to be a part of the current company through 2011.
Stephens is partnered by Mariah Gale as Celia. Gale previously appeared alongside David Tennant in Hamlet and the slightly less successful Love’s Labour’s Lost and again here is an ideal foil for Katy Stephens. The two together bring energy and humour to the production but are tight and well-ordered when the size and scale of the production becomes a little too large. They retain our attention and focus when the stage is just a little too busy.
What else is good here? Richard Katz as Touchstone, the Court Fool who follows his Mistress out into Arden Forest gives a performance which at time is touched by brilliance. Sophie Russell as Audrey provides a great comic turn in the bawdy / mock romantic scenes that she shares with Touchstone prior to their marriage where we can really see why the play regards their coming together as more than likely to be temporary and unsuccessful.
This is early in the play’s run and there was one too many times tonight where Jonjo O’Neill as Orlando seemed to be just remembering his lines rather than interpreting them and acting through them. Additionally, Boyd introduced some dance movements which were interesting but gone too quickly to allow them to blossom and really enhance what was happening on the stage.
The greatest compliment one can play this production is that I came away feeling that I had seen Shakespeare. The Bard is allowed to speak – fittingly as this was on his birthday. Too often recently I have left the RSC feeling that the director had drowned out the great words with his own ideas about how the production should look. This was not the case here. Michael Boyd’s direction enhanced my enjoyment and in Katy Stephens, he seems to have found a true star.