“Ultimately one has to pity these poor souls who know every secret about writing, directing, designing, producing, and acting but are stuck in those miserable day jobs writing reviews. Will somebody help them, please?” – David Ives
What follows is not a review of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of As You Like It, directed by Michael Attenborough. I repeat: this is not a review.
Robin Hood and his Merry Melancholy Men
‘They say he is already in the forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world’ (Charles; 1.1.109-13).*
Then why, why, WHY is the banished court so often depicted as a rag-tag group of forlorn nobles on the brink of starvation and hypothermia? Why, especially, if this play is the Chamberlain’s Men answer to the Admiral’s Men pair of Robin Hood plays from 1598? ‘Here we feel not the penalty of Adam, / The seasons’ difference’, says Duke Senior (2.1.5-6, emphasis added). It may be cold, but the country courtiers have drawn with them the warmth no longer attending Frederick’s harsh city government. (Perhaps the usurper’s choler steals all the heat to feed itself; Jaques seems to concentrate the environment’s cold in his own humour.)
The lack of contrast in tone between the court and forest isn’t helped by Jonathan Fensom’s set design, which carries a muted palette on three flown curtains. I actually rather liked the set, golden walls (emphatically NOT ‘dung-colored’, cf. grumpy Post review) shimmering wealth behind the court, diffused sunlight behind the forest. The three curtains are adorned with abstract, watery, Pollockian foliage. Influenced by years working at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Fensom’s design is elegantly spare.** He and Attenborough worked out a system of levels and layers that make for the shortest, most fluid scene transitions I’ve seen at STC in years. Curtains are drawn, laid upon, and peered around. They create distance, hide eavesdroppers, and dangle poems from above, swaying in the wind. Not much colour, no, but great staging opportunities.
At any rate, the physical stage reflects the magic of Arden, even if it does so quietly, and even if the action never treats it as something supernaturally wondrous.
The Ultimate Outsider
Derek Smith’s Jaques is a gift in this production, though at times he both looks (overcoat balanced across his dapper shoulders) and acts more royal than the banished duke he attends. Some of that can’t be helped: Smith usually plays the lead, and at STC that means playing the leader. So his outsider Jaques draws eyes and captures attention without the struggle audiences sometimes feel at being forced to listen to the resident downer give a speech about the human lifespan, when they could be giggling at forest clowns and whatnot. Smith layers on an effeteness that spoke more to me in this role than so many other American Jaques. When the banished court prepares to return home, and Jaques chooses to remain in the forest, Smith casts a look of longing and sadness at the duke that instantly sums up his character’s melancholic isolation. This Jaques is an emotional separatist. He always has been, and always will be apart, not just uncoupled in Hymen’s marriage rites, but disallowed from any coupling at all.
(Of course, we can also read this as a frustrated sexual desire, and I hope beyond hope this wasn’t part of the actor’s character backstory. Not only does this powerless, unrequited love make less and less sense in a world where same-sex marriage is an increasingly common legal right, but it’s a boring choice. Denying a relationship based on the unthinkability of homosexuality has been passé in my own life since I was 17, and it’s tiring to watch this allowed as a creative default choice.
Hymen appears onstage from almost the very first scene, ‘helping’ Orlando, guiding Rosalind… basically just spying on everyone. She wears a yellow, flowered sundress, and silently hovers at the edge of action, until, finally, we find out just who she is. Te’La Curtis Lee has a lovely singing voice – I just wish I heard it before the last moments, when the God’s marriage poem became a hymn. And also, seriously, I don’t know why she was around. Hymen doesn’t orchestrate the action, he just appears at the end (a la Jupiter) to conclude it.
*As You Like It. Ed. Alan Brissenden. Oxford Shakespeare. Clarendon (1993).
**Cf. Grumpy CityPaper review (link below). ‘Spare’ is not an adjective commonly used for STC productions, and it seems the variety is unwelcome to local critics.