Some thoughts on the Royal Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It in August 2023
As I write it’s the final day of the RSC’s 2023 production of_ As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. I had the great pleasure of seeing this show two nights ago and just have one or two thoughts to share. So, …
The stage setting is that of a rehearsal room, regular chairs and a few tables etc. Back wall with large noticeboards full of sheets of notes, drawings , etc for an upcoming production of – As You Like It. A group of people amiably enter and greet each other, ‘Haven’t seen you in a while!’ Most of the group are older people, say 65-plus. One of them stops to explain to us that this evening is a reunion of a group of actors who played the play in 1978, and they are here again (with a four younger people to help them out as and when needed) – because they’re putting on the play again, tonight, here and now!
So we proceed. “As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion bequeathed me …” Orlando (Malcolm Sinclair) is, poignantly, addressing an empty overcoat which stands for the actor who played Old Adam in 1978, now deceased … Age and remembering are major motifs in this production, by virtue of the age of most of the cast, most of whom are veterans of the stage and of playing this particular play, even if the ’78 production is a fictional one.
The ‘rehearsal room’ set and everyday dress of the players give us a sense of watching a rehearsal or drama workshop – on one level. But the production goes further than this . Later on (Act 2 Scene 7 in the Arden Shakespeare text, though this production does move scenes around) a stag’s carcass is dragged onstage, and we know ourselves to be watching more than a rehearsal in a suburban hall somewhere. This blurring of the lines between rehearsal/workshop and full production is one of the ingenious touches of this production. The evening begins in one setting (ordinary, everyday) but gradually morphs into another – in the way in which Theatre in general takes us from where we are to another setting, another world. Where this journey begins during the show is pleasingly hard to pinpoint. And after all, the ‘rehearsal room’ in which the play begins is itself a set on a stage, so there’s some fascinating layering going on here all the time.
This production presents us with theatre stripped back to its essentials; it brought home to me again the original, literal meaning of the word ‘Play’ – which is, what children mean when they say, ‘Let’s play at (soldiers, superheroes ,etc)’. The setting meant that we had even more layering added to this play than usual: for instance we had at one point Geraldine James (Rosalind) playing an actress, playing Rosalind, playing the young man Ganymede!
As mentioned already, most of the cast (and certainly all in the major roles) are veteran actors in terms of age and experience. This has been a major talking-point around the production and it’s very welcome to see such experienced players all gathered in one place and certainly giving us a very clear, beautifully-spoken performance. But the thought also struck me that perhaps this should seem no stranger to us than having a group of fourteen -year-olds play all the parts in a school production?
As far as the performers’ age was concerned there was just enough ‘Oh, my knees!’ and people accenting their problems getting up at time etc to acknowledge this during the first part of the evening, without it remaining as what would have become a distracting comic motif later on. Or was this also showing the healing properties of the Forest of Arden …? I don’t want to specifically give away what happens towards the end of the production – for anyone who didn’t get to see it, hopefully there will be a DVD release at some point – but there is a transformation of sorts which illustrates what I’ve already mentioned, that theatre begins in a bare rehearsal room somewhere but can become a magic which points , and takes, people to a place beyond where they are. And it makes it easy to see why people stay in the profession of acting for fifty, sixty years or more, and how they can still have so much to give.
Anthony Rice 5 August 2023