In a spate of pre-opening interviews about his decision to direct his first production of As You Like It, Sir Peter Hall, whose half-century of illustrious credits includes the founding of the Royal Shakespeare Company, consistently stressed two points: (1) that his 21-year-old daughter, Rebecca, makes an ideal Rosalind, and (2) that the play’s “dark side” has hitherto been under-explored.
He’s at least half right. With her lush alto intonations lending an unaccustomed tenderness to the role and her goofy, boyish body language (think Emma Thompson in Carrington), Rebecca Hall is indeed well suited to Rosalind. She’s especially effective in raggedy male drag as the character’s Forest of Arden alter ego: the youth Ganymede, self-appointed amatory tutor to her own (i.e., Rosalind’s) ardent suitor, Orlando, played here by the splendid and strapping Joseph Millson.
As for director Hall’s chiaroscuro approach to the play, it works only to a degree. It’s interesting — refreshing, even — to see Rosalind’s father, the usurped duke (played by David Yelland, who’s equally convincing as evil brother Duke Frederick) and his not so merry men encamped in a frigid forest like a pack of Depression-era hobos or Gulag exiles. Unfortunately, this mood of gravitas is allowed to bleed into the pastoral second part of the play (acts III-V) when we’re looking forward to a carefree romp of “country copulatives.” The serious tone — Rosalind speaks all too woundedly of love’s “wounds” — overfreights the narrative. Come on, she’s only just met the guy! Besides, it’s spring! The rear projections behind the beyond-minimalist set — two benches, three stumps, a smattering of tree trunks — have seguéd from silver to leafy green, and that change in colorization should have been taken as a cue that it was time to lighten up.
Another problem with the trailing tone of tragedy is that the ur-melancholic Jaques (Philip Voss) has little to play against; he just seems marginally gloomier than the rest of the gang. And the decision, whether Voss’s or the director’s, that the actor should deliver the entire “seven ages” speech with his hands thrust deep into his pockets — where they flail ineffectually — is a puzzlement.
Fortunately, a multitude of diverting moments offset the skewed tone. The ensemble has been imported pretty much intact from last summer’s production at the Theatre Royal Bath and, true to form, the Brits excel in character roles. Nigel Pegram is touching as the devoted old servant Adam and, later, amusing as an alcohol-addled clergyman. Peter Gordon makes the most of his few moments as the courtier Le Beau; he plays him as fey, with an unseemly interest in gaining more “knowledge” of the dashing Orlando. Michael Siberry is magnificent — urbane rather than antic — in the role of the jester Touchstone. As Rosalind’s cousin, Celia, Rebecca Callard initially seems miscast: A full foot shorter than Rebecca Hall, she looks more like Rosalind’s child (or miniature) than confidante. But she fully redeems herself by snapping and emitting exasperated, third-wheel sighs when subjected to the lovers’ extended spates of mock wooing.
Similarly, Glenn Carter as Orlando’s redeemed brother, the hitherto fratricidal Oliver, relates the preying lioness conversion bit with rolled eyes as if it were the most contrived plot twist in the world — and isn’t it? “Can we just get past this,” he seems to be asking, “so that we can get on with the main event, in which the appropriate lovers will finally be paired off?” Even in this payoff scene, the approach of both Halls is overly portentous; jollier interpretations are not only standard but also apt. It seems clear that Rosalind feels clever when she promises the smitten shepherdess Phoebe, “I will marry you if ever I marry woman” but, in this rendition, her pronouncement reads like regret. And that would be another play entirely.
Persistent cavils aside, this As You Like It is a rare opportunity to witness tremendously talented and well-trained actors tackling one of Shakespeare’s frothier treats.