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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: January ::
How Like You This?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0222  Wednesday, 28 January 2004

From:           Charles Weinstein <
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Date:           Wednesday, 28 Jan 2004 06:00:37 -0500
Subject:        How Like You This?

The Theatre Royal Bath's touring production of As You Like It, directed
by Peter Hall and starring his daughter Rebecca as Rosalind, received
rapturous reviews during its recent engagement in Boston.  Yet at the
weeknight performance I attended, the theater was half-empty (half-full,
if one is an optimist).  The ushers were charged with rounding up
scattered audience-members and moving them to the front half of the
orchestra so that the company could play to the illusion of a full
house.  This was not an isolated incident: the production was ultimately
reduced to giving away tickets.   What accounts for this lack of
interest on the part of an educated theater public in the face of a
supportive press?

Bad word of mouth can trump the most favorable reviews, and the
grapevine seeded by this production has yielded a lacklustre vintage.
This is partly the fault of the actors, who belie their good notices at
every turn.  The highly-touted Rebecca Hall has neither looks, charm,
energy nor wit.  When her listless and drawling Rosalind meets Joseph
Millson's mechanical Orlando, the spirits of dullness acknowledge a
match made in heaven.  Observing the proceedings, Rebecca Callard's tiny
Celia holds her arms rigidly at her sides and chirps away like a
paralyzed budgie.  As the Good and Evil Dukes, David Yelland shows
glints of subtlety amidst a largely gray performance:  he might have
done better in a better production.  Not so with the players of Oliver,
Adam and Le Beau, who would have been equally awful anywhere.   Even an
interesting actor would have trouble making Touchstone funny, and
Michael Siberry is not an interesting actor.  The biggest disappointment
is Phillip Voss, whose excellent Menenius remains in memory, but whose
whining and epicene Jaques is merely petulant.  Throughout this tired,
dispirited, remorselessly mediocre production, one yearns for an actor
to rise up and shatter the prevailing torpor.  It never happens, at
least not during the first half.  I fled at intermission, and I was not
the only one.

Still, the actors are not entirely to blame, since Peter Hall is no
longer creating the conditions for good acting.  Hall was once an
important, possibly a great Shakespearean director; but that, as they
say, was then.  He now squanders valuable rehearsal time drilling his
cast in a verse-speaking method which he pompously declares to be the
One True Way.   In fact it is crooked and errant.   Hall's method
requires perceptible pauses at the end of every pentameter line, even
when syntax and sense require enjambment.  The result, of course, is a
wrenching and dislocation of syntax and sense--a jerking, jolting,
hiccupping delivery, rebarbative and unnatural.  Even worse, the
regularity of the pauses leads to regularity of pacing, creating a flat,
even texture that subdues variation and irons out acting values.
Stanley Wells and others have had some pointed things to say about this
method, but Hall has ignored them.  Absorbed in constructing speed bumps
every tenth or eleventh syllable, he now pays little attention to
blocking (rudimentary in this production), design (minimalist) or
emotional dynamic (non-existent).  As for prose scenes, they apparently
bore him; under his direction they certainly bore us.

Yet even Hall & Co.'s deficiencies do not fully solve the riddle of the
half-empty theater; for that, one must look to the deficiencies of the
play. The first question anyone should ask of a work called As You Like
It is: Do I?  Frank Kermode's answer can be found in Shakespeare's
Language (2000):

"As You Like It....is the most topical of the comedies and the one most
involved in the intellectual interests of its period.  There is very
little plot....Certainly it is a very literary play....[S]ometimes
[Rosalind and Celia] are tedious, as when Rosalind lectures Orlando on
Time and the proper appearance of a lover (III.ii) or Jaques on
melancholy (IV.I), or speaks of history's failure to produce an example
of a man who died for love (IV.I.89-104).  It is useless to object to
these protractions, for their liveliness and wit cannot be gainsaid, but
many must have wished, while commending it as Christopher Sly in The
Taming of the Shrew praises the play, that it would come to an
end....Praise for As You Like It needs to be qualified, because more
than most of Shakespeare it has slipped over our horizon; it has too
much to say about what was once intimately interesting and now is not.
It calls for some rather specialised historical information and, in any
case, its character and purpose place limitations on its language."

Sir Frank was less polite in a subsequent interview:

"[W]e should be prepared to say that some of the plays just don't work
anymore, and that they don't work in the present.  They only work as
archaeological sites.  I think that's true of, say, As You Like It,
which is still very popular, although I don't know why.  It really is
the most boring of plays.  It's nearly all in prose, and full of
pointless interchanges of so-called wit.  The job of scholars is to sort
these things out, and recover what is plausibly recoverable, and let go
of what is not."

For me, As You Like It recalls (or anticipates) the musical comedies of
the early 20th century:  witness the exiguous plot, the unfunny jokes,
the vaudeville turns, the scenes that are merely pretexts for songs.
Shakespeare adumbrates a narrative, abandons it when his characters
reach Arden, and belatedly resolves it in a strangely perfunctory
manner.  This may be calculated or it may be carelessness:  in either
case, it doesn't work.  Nor does the language, a heavily-conceited argot
of such labored coyness and jejune witlessness as to set the teeth on
edge.  The reader or auditor wades through a swamp of persiflage to
reach the occasional resonant line, and the reward does not redeem the
journey.

As You Like It is still produced, though less often, I suspect, than
Twelfth Night, Midsummer and Much Ado.  If the play that I attended had
been one of these, would the theater have been half-empty?   I suspect
not.  The local failure of Hall's production may have causes more
ponderable than a bad company and a burnt-out director.  After centuries
of popularity, As You Like It may finally be losing its audience, as a
growing number of intelligent people realize that they Don't.

--Charles Weinstein

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