I saw the second preview of this, so held off posting until after it had opened (and what follows are my off-the-cuff responses jotted down right after I saw the show and not really reconsidered since then). Given that it was a preview, I perhaps shouldn’t be too judgey. But whatever. From the reviews that have appeared since, it doesn’t sound like much changed over the intervening days; there also were no noticeable technical issues on the night I saw the show. I didn’t feel like an early preview — I’ll give it that.

As long as no-one is talking, this is kind of a cool production. In the first half. The Brothers de Bois seem to run an orchard business, or something, and it’s an office with lots of desks with bonsais and big flatscreen with greenery screensavers, and a Eurotrashy colourful carpet, and lots of employees in colourful uniforms. It looks great, and it’s busy, busy, busy, in a fairly entertaining and loose way. And then Orlando starts to speak, and SHAKESPEARE begins. And the fun kind of ends. That keeps happening: there’s looseness, and energy, and interesting-to-watch stuff — and then someone opens his or her mouth, and things grind to a halt. The wrestling match takes place in the office, which seems weird, until one remembers what modern offices can be like, and then it’s just normal (I can totally see something like this happening at Twitter HQ, for instance).

Really, really, really cool? The set change to the forest. Which will most certainly not read on screen, so if you’re seeing this as an NT Live screening, just take my word for it: it’s spectacular. The entire office, desks, chairs, and all, gets pulled up into the Olivier fly, and then hangs down as a massive cascade of office furniture, lit very starkly from above, with huge amounts of fog and haze; and the entire stage is covered in black mulch and debris. It’s a fantastic stage image, easily the bleakest, most dystopian Forest of Arden I’ve ever seen, and the entrance of Duke Senior and his crew is pretty fantastic, too — they all look incredibly unhappy and cold, except for the irrepressibly jolly Duke himself.

Rosalie Craig is an OK Rosalind, and she and Patsy Ferran as Celia have a few scenes that feel spontaneous and quite sweet — Ferran in particular gets very close to sounding like she isn’t just speaking Shakespeare at times. Joe Bannister as Orlando is a bit pale, although, like a couple of others, he’s better when he’s not speaking. And Paul Chahidi (with hair!) as Jaques has some interesting moments — he certainly nails the melancholy, and there’s an intriguing hint that he has a thing for Ganymede. (Leo Wringer, on the other hand, gives one of those astonishingly wooden performances as Duke Frederick that the NT seems to love to feature in their Shakespeares. There’s always at least one. All big voice and “classical” gestures. So strange.)

But “moments” is kind of the keyword. There are plenty of bits that are individually interesting. At one point, most of the cast turn into sheep. That was delightful. But not a theme. The forest noises are made by performers sitting all over the suspended chairs and desks, and standing on two balconies in the side walls. If I never see another Shakespeare play set in a forest in which actors create the soundscape, I will not feel a huge gap in my existence (incidentally, the exact same device was used in another disappointing As You Like It I saw earlier this year, in Cologne). Audrey hasn’t been cut — and should have been. Her and Touchstone have a ton of business, most of which isn’t especially smart or interesting, though some of it is effective slapstick. Jaques’s dreadfully famous speech might as well have been cut. The Audrey-Silvius business has no bite at all; it’s utterly harmless. Hymen is gone, replaced by Corin (?), who hangs around for basically the entire second half. That’s clearly meant to be some sort of concept, except it isn’t. The relationship between Ganymede and Orlando is just weird: there is zero homoerotic attraction or chemistry. There’s no kiss. It feels almost like they didn’t take the idea that Ganymede stands in for Rosalind especially seriously. Nor does Craig ever get really nasty with anyone, not even Phoebe. It’s all terribly, terribly lukewarm, and bitty. Without Hymen there, the “magician” story is silly, and should have been cut. When Rosalind comes back, in a dress and with long hair (which Orlando gets to play with in comic disbelief), it’s not a “magical” transformation — it’s not a “transformation” at all. She’s just changed into a different outfit. And no-one seems all that shocked, not even Phoebe. Would have made way more sense to have Ganymede pull off his wig on stage — at least that would have had some sort of theatrical impact.

What’s worst about the entire second half is that it feels like a huge betrayal of the ambitions the set hinted at in the first half. It looked like this was going to be a dystopian As You Like It, a take on the show that would explore the darkness and the nastiness of the play, that might explode the sheer oddness of its narrative resolutions, seriously throw into relief the way in which the play pulls all kinds of deliberately clunky tricks to force things to a comedic conclusion (the story of Oliver and Orlando’s reconciliation? The story of Duke Frederick’s reformation?). But no. Although the set continued to look impressively gloomy, the production was going hard for simple happiness in the second half, no matter how absurd the narrative got. Which is why it only made sense that after the big reveal is finally over, they all bloody dance. The entire huge company, including singers. They actually manage to crowd the Olivier stage. They sing and dance, as if this were an old-fashioned Globe production. And then, wonder upon wonders, a colourful shower of confetti falls all over the auditorium. Visual magic; artistic bankruptcy.

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