A thoroughly modern Rosalind

As You Like It, Rose Kingston, 26 February and 9 March 2011

The design of the Rose Kingston is based on the original Elizabethan Rose theatre whose foundations can still be seen on the Southbank in London. The first Rose had a shallow thrust or so-called “lozenge” stage, which is also a feature of the Kingston replica. Supporters of the Kingston Rose design claim that it more accurately represents the shape of a typical Elizabethan stage than does Shakespeare’s Globe with its deep square thrust.

So it was particularly striking that for this production the shallow lozenge stage had been completely remodelled to create a prominent thrust that took up over a metre of what would normally be the pit cushions area right in front of the stage. This is the equivalent of the Globe’s yard, where you can bring your own cushion to sit on and watch a play for eight quid.

Contained by bare metal plates a metre high, the stage appeared to contain a large mound of soil strewn with apples. The usual performance area behind was curtained off with black fabric so that the production was staged right at the centre of the audience seating arc. Above the stage some dead, dry branches hung from the flies.

As this production was directed by Stephen Unwin, the Rose’s artistic director, the stage design could have been taken as an admission that, whatever the historic accuracy of the Rose space, deep thrust stages have the advantage of bringing an audience closer to the performance.

This was just as well, as this was a warm-hearted production to which you wanted to feel closer.

Beginnings

Orlando and Adam were carrying large baskets of fruit when they appeared at the start of 1.1. This sweated labour very effectively demonstrated what Orlando meant by being kept “rustically at home”. The soil covering of the stage produced clouds of dust as they moved around, emphasising the squalor of their condition. Oliver entered stage right and struck a dominant, defiant pose in the face of Orlando’s complaints, whose simmering contempt for his brother could be seen in the way he kept his back turned away from him during their first exchange.

The fight took place in two stages with Oliver’s taunting causing Orlando to push him to the ground and proudly announce his parentage. But as he turned away Oliver rose from the ground and attacked him from behind. Orlando let his fists fly quite savagely, eventually sitting astride Oliver with his hand on his brother’s throat. There was no hint of comedy in this encounter and it succeeded in creating a quite worrying picture of a man at the end of his tether.

Adam’s response to Oliver’s description of him as an “old dog” was to bare his teeth and show the blackened “gap” in his mouth. This was nice realistic touch that worked well for those near to the stage.

After the exposition about the two Dukes and the wrestling match, we got our first view of Rosalind and Celia in 1.2 with both entering over the mound of earth at the back of the stage.

Following F, this production gave line 4 to Rosalind who completed her first speech with “And would you yet I were merrier.”

Georgina Rich’s Rosalind and Phoebe Fox’s Celia worked well together as the close-knit cousins. Rosalind’s nervousness seemed to invite Celia’s strong supportive friendship making the relationship look very realistic. There was something about Rosalind’s twitchy insecurity that spoke of an underlying strength that the right circumstances could bring out. But this insecurity was never fully expelled and was a constant aspect of her character until the magical resolution at the end of the play.

In this respect she was a thoroughly modern, non-idealised Rosalind in the way she battled through her difficulties, gained some confidence, but never really triumphed over adversity until the very end. She was unlike the many Rosalinds who breeze through the play on a cloud of problem-solving magic dust as if conscious of their fortunate destiny.

Michael Feast’s Touchstone in his tattered smoking jacket and coxcomb hat was a joyous, subversive eruption into the genteel world of the Duke’s court. His excitable, anarchic character was expressed throughout by his general animation and delight in physicality, with his blackened eyes darting to and fro as if seeking out trouble.

When he realised that Rosalind and Celia had spotted him and were talking about him he turned to leave, but was called back by Celia’s cry of “How now, wit, wither wander you?”

Le Beau arrived to tell the women about the wrestling match. Touchstone stood behind him mimicking his camp effusions to the height of mockery. Rosalind’s joke with Le Beau playing on presence/presents was cut for ease of understanding.

The wrestlers took up position downstage while the observers stood on the vantage point of the upstage mound. The fighting began quite fiercely and angrily with more punching than neck holds. Orlando was driven by the exactly the same fury he had vented against his brother, and after some reversals in his fortune managed to get a neck lock on Charles causing him to pass out.

As the defeated man was being helped away, Duke Frederick placed a winner’s garland on Orlando’s head. But he regretted this gesture when the young man revealed his identity. The Duke’s dismissal of Orlando was curt and authoritarian but not monstrous. In retort, Orlando took the garland from his head and threw it contemptuously at the doorway from which the Duke had just exited.

Changes

A real change came over Orlando after talking to Rosalind. He seemed quite stricken and his dopey happiness contrasted with the violent anger of his previous self. This transformation from embitterment to soppiness was subtle but clearly noticeable.

Le Beau told Orlando that of the two women “the smaller” was the daughter to Duke Frederick.

Having seen the Globe production where Rosalind’s reference to “her child’s father” was taken as the cue for a squee-fest, it was slightly disappointing to see this line pass by without a strong reaction from Rosalind or Celia. But I soon realised that the downplaying of overt comedy among the women this early in the play was consistent with its overall tone, which emphasised Rosalind’s dissatisfaction and edginess, which was similar in its effect to Orlando’s discontent.

Duke Frederick’s banishment of Rosalind was as equally dispassionate and matter of fact as his treatment of Orlando in the scene before.

Rosalind’s suggestion of putting on a disguise saw the first inkling of her adoption of the mannish postures it would require. Celia’s pronunciation of Aliena used a long ‘A’ to alliterate with ‘hay’.

In order to facilitate the doubling of the Dukes, the first four scenes of act four were rearranged in the sequence 2.2, 2.3, 2.1 and 2.4. This avoided the quick costume change that would have been required for the actor playing the two Dukes between 2.1 and 2.2. No problems of continuity arose from this reordering.

So Paul Shelley gave us 2.2, a brief scene showing us Duke Frederick’s anger at the departure of his daughter and Rosalind.

The short exchange between Orlando and Adam in 2.3 allowed us a lengthier exposure to the musicality of Shango Baku’s accent, which was ideally suited to the poetry of Adam’s verse lines.

The boughs were lowered at the start of 2.1 to indicate that we were in the forest as Duke Senior and his co-mates emerged in their winter coats. In a nice comic touch, the brothers in exile fired imaginary arrows from their bows at an imaginary bird located somewhere in the gallery and a sound effect squawked when it was hit.

In Arden

As Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone arrived in the Forest of Arden in 2.4 the fool had lost his coxcomb, but not his sardonic wit, while Rosalind has lost her long pinned-on hair extension, her formal gown and gained a short bob and trousers. She took her water bottle and investigated the pool in the downstage left corner but found it unappetising and did not refill it. She stood while the others sat to rest on the mound, but joined them to observe unseen when Corin and Silvius entered. Once Silvius had exited Corin sat downstage left praying in silence.

When first trying out her man’s disguise talking to Corin, Rosalind bravely took her first tentative steps towards playing the part of Ganymede. As is often the case, her first words and gestures were overplayed before later settling down into being herself without masculine affectation.

Amiens and another forester sat on the mound to sing Under The Greenwood Tree as a duet on the guitar at the start of 2.5. The intelligent and bookish Jaques, played by Adrian Lukis, sat facing upstage but turned to the audience to deliver his dry witticisms. He mimed the meeting of two dog-apes by mimicking their effusive bowing.

Jaques spoke the words of the song he had composed line by line so that Amiens could sing it. The ducdame joke about calling fools into a circle did not get a big laugh, but it was not set up and played as a riotous comedy moment.

The foresters rested during the brief interlude of 2.6 as Orlando supported the sick and weakening Adam. He almost left Adam alone on the ground, making to exit, but returned remarking “Yet thou liest on the ground”. He then picked Adam up and carried him out.

Back with the foresters again for 2.7, there were signs of dinner being prepared as a dead deer lay next to a cooking pot. A pestle and mortar and other implements were also used.

Jaques became really excited about meeting a fool in the forest. The bawdy potential in the line “And thereby hangs a tale” was not brought out. To demonstrate the dryness of Touchstone’s wit, he picked up some of the soil and crumbled it between his fingers when referring to the “remainder biscuit”.

Orlando entered and held the group at sword point with Jaques only slightly modifying his sarcasm in the face of this danger. The Duke sat still downstage right during the time that Orlando threatened them, which indicated his inner cool. And with this coolness he remained firmly in command of the situation: when Jaques taunted Orlando provoking the desperate young man into pointing his sword at him, the Duke defused the potential conflict by distracting Orlando with the question “What would you have?”

Jaques “seven ages” speech was delivered downstage left and produced complete silence in the audience. It was done without mime or mimic of the various stages of human existence. He simply stood and looked off into space probing both his own memories and his vision of his own future. It was chilling rather than entertaining and thus perfectly at one with the tinge of sadness to the production overall. After it was finished a considerable pause was left before the action continued, rather like that left by the audience of an emotionally draining piece of music before it applauds, and this enhanced the depth of the experience.

Orlando fetched in Adam, who was fed by Amiens while the Duke gave Orlando a total of two bowls of soup. While Amiens sung, Orlando whispered meaningfully to the Duke, who then publicly announced the content (Orlando’s identity) to the assembled foresters. And on that doleful note the interval came.

Part two

The second half of the performance began with 3.1 and a bloodied Oliver had a bucket of water thrown in his face as part of his interrogation. This was suggestive of the head-dunking that other productions have staged in this scene.

The boughs suspended above the stage were lowered in 3.2 to allow Orlando to peg a single sheet of his verse onto it. This was just as effective as more lavish stagings that have the stage filled with paper.

Corin sat and worked on a fleece with bloodied hands trading banter with Touchstone. The fool was very entertaining with a manic music hall vibe, which could be seen in his bawdy mime of the “cuckoldy ram”.

He gave physical expression to his sparky jumps of thought. Rather as Rosalind declared that she has to speak when she thinks, so this Touchstone felt a similar need to act out the notions in his head.

Whereas Jaques is known for his intellectual cynicism, it was possible to detect in this production’s Touchstone a form of hedonistic cynicism that formed a connection between the two characters. Both were out of synch with the rest of the world, and attacking it from two different angles. This communality between them could explain Jaques excitement at meeting Touchstone, as described earlier.

As sheep noise sound effects played in the background, Rosalind took the verse hanging from the tree and read it out. Touchstone snatched it from her and sang it out loud in a jaunty, mocking tone. He stuck the paper down his trousers only to retrieve it with a reference to “love’s prick”.

Rosalind was dismissive of the sentiments in the verse that she had found, but when Celia entered reading a better verse (the sheep noises were silenced to accentuate its quality), Rosalind became visibly inquisitive. She peered over Celia’s shoulder at a distance and moved in trying to get a better look. Having snatched it from Celia she studied it closely and compared the handwriting with the one she had found. This verse had made such an impact that she was determined to find out who had written it.

Rosalind looked at the audience when referring to the “parishioners” that Celia had wearied. Celia paid Touchstone to leave, allowing him to brandish the coin as the “scrip and scrippage”. This staging related neatly to the meaning of “scrip” as a fool’s tip bag.

The sequence in which Celia tried to tell Rosalind the identity of the versifier was slightly underplayed. Rosalind knelt before her cousin to express her “petitionary vehemence” but Celia’s series of “wonderfuls” that were out of all “whooping” felt a bit flat.

Rosalind sat to listen to Celia’s account of finding Orlando in the forest, but the jokes surrounding her interruptions indicated that the pair of actors did not have the natural comic timing and instincts of a double act. Rosalind’s joke about how, as a woman, she must speak when she thinks did not raise much of a laugh for this reason.

They hid behind the mound to observe Orlando and Jaques. The opaque reference in the text to goldsmiths’ wives and their rings was cut. Orlando washed his face in the downstage left basin of water, in which he invited Jaques to see a fool, i.e. his own reflection.

Impressions

Rosalind’s first conversation with Orlando was characterised by nerves and insecurity as she tried out her impression of a man. When Orlando asked her “Where dwell you, pretty youth?” she seemed worried about attracting his attentions for being “pretty” in her male disguise and immediately seized on Celia, presenting her to Orlando as a real female for him to fancy. Her fear of discovery was felt in her reference to the fringe on a petticoat and her nervous “Thank God I am not a woman”: multiple instances of her protesting too much.

She was fretful rather than laugh out loud funny as if her subterfuge was constantly teetering on the edge of failure.

Orlando had a short beard which she was able to inspect and comment on, but he did not really look “point-device” in his clothing.

When Rosalind arranged to cure Orlando of his love, someone in the audience who was obviously unfamiliar with the play ooh-ed in great surprise when the woman disguised as a man insisted on being called Rosalind. This fresh and spontaneous reaction brought home the curious and risky nature of the undertaking.

The comedy between Touchstone and Audrey in 3.3 did not disappoint. Picking her nose enthusiastically at one point, she then blocked one nostril and blew out the other side as she gave thanks for being foul.

The cynical hedonist Touchstone found Audrey’s buxom form too enticing to leave unmolested for very long. He buried his head in her chest and straining with the effort looked at us sideways on to explain how a man might “stagger in this attempt”. His pawing at her soon descended into both of them writhing around on the ground, interrupted only by the arrival of Sir Oliver Martext.

This lusty behaviour was a perfect demonstration of the truth of Touchstone’s comment to Jaques, who had come forward offering to give away Audrey, about the way that “man hath his desires”.

The scene was so successful that it earned spontaneous audience applause at its end. Not only did this make the audience feel good but it probably also boosted the cast. It was great to have the comedy in this scene deriving from the lovers rather than from a myopic or otherwise decrepit priest.

Despondent

Celia and Rosalind sat despondent on the ground having waited in vain for Orlando. Corin invited them to observe Silvius and Phoebe’s “pageant truly played”. They exited before re-entering to hide behind the mound for 3.5.

Phoebe’s comic persona was enhanced by Georgia Maguire’s Lancashire accent, though it was disappointing that equation between regional identity and comedy still seems to work. Phoebe tangled eyes with Rosalind, when the latter emerged from hiding to scold her.

She washed her face in the pond to make herself more presentable and instantly obeyed when Rosalind told her to get down on her knees. Phoebe was still in that obedient posture when Rosalind bent down to semi-whisper “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets.”

Dealing with Phoebe, Rosalind became more confident in her disguise as Ganymede because it was easier for her to be self-assured towards another woman than towards a man.

Once Rosalind, Celia and Corin had exited, Phoebe delivered her “dead shepherd” lines to the audience downstage right, collapsing in sobs on the ground. But she returned to the centre stage to sit with Silvius, telling him about her feelings for Ganymede and her plan to write to him. Despite her standoffishness towards Silvius and her apparent lack of interest in him, she was quite tactile and physically intimate with him when explaining Ganymede’s attractions.

At the start of act four Jaques slowly expounded the nature of his “humorous sadness” in yet another slow but captivating speech, delivered with all the gravity of his previous seven ages digression. The entry of Orlando chased Jaques away leaving the young man together with Rosalind. The increased confidence she displayed with Phoebe transferred into her dealings here with Orlando.

This could be seen when she got so carried away with the idea of Orlando calling her “Rosalind” that Celia, who was lying on the ground beside them, had to sit up and remind her cousin that Orlando already had a Rosalind “of a better leer than you”.

Rosalind and Orlando ended up facing each other lying on the ground as Rosalind promised to love him “Fridays and Saturdays and all”. Her explanation of the changes in a woman’s behaviour after marriage saw another high point in her more confident delivery of rhetoric.

Disaster

They knelt before each other for the marriage ceremony, and Celia was reluctantly coaxed from her comfortable position on the ground to officiate. All went well until Rosalind promised to take Orlando for her husband, at which point he spontaneously kissed her and then instantly recoiled in horror at what he thought he had done. Rosalind, who feared discovery, then mumbled her subsequent words about a girl going before the priest in similar embarrassment.

This was another instance where the situation looked more like a potential disaster than a riotous moment of comedy.

Celia slumped back down again and slept at the front of the stage through 4.2 as Jaques and the foresters stomped around singing about the hunt.

Rosalind’s return for 4.3 saw her comically misunderstand Phoebe’s letter and the poor postman Silvius became increasingly despondent as its full implications hit home.

Celia did not seem visibly smitten with Oliver when he appeared. She gave him directions as if trying to work them out herself in her head. William Tapley’s speaking of Oliver’s verse account of his rescue by Orlando was a great moment in the play, and certainly Rosalind was impressed, listening to him intently sat on her knees and thinking about the bloody cloth he had produced.

At the end of the story Rosalind got up to take the cloth proffered by Oliver, but no sooner on her feet but she fainted. He helped her up but she fainted a second time, again requiring Oliver’s assistance to stand. Unlike in some productions, this was not used as the occasion for Oliver to feel the female contours of Rosalind’s body. Rosalind found herself insecure in her disguise once again, as indicated by her nervous insistence that her counterfeiting be reported.

Audrey was understandably angry in 5.1 that her wedding had been delayed. But she and Touchstone were soon distracted by the arrival of simple countryman William carrying a basket of pears. Despite his lack of obvious lady-killing allure, William posed such a threat to Touchstone that the fool launched into an increasingly manic and fantastical display of bravado. Culminating in an over-the-top threat to kill William “a hundred and fifty ways” and requesting him to “tremble and depart”, William did not tremble but simply paused in thought for a while and then slouched off with a polite parting gesture as if totally unimpressed by the braggart Touchstone’s excesses.

Orlando’s discussion with Oliver about the latter’s impending wedding to Celia in 5.2 was interrupted by the entry of Rosalind. Oliver’s use of the word “sister” to greet Rosalind seemed tinged with a hint of knowingness. The air of unease continued when Orlando stated quite bluntly that his arm was in a scarf and not his heart as Rosalind had just suggested.

Wonders

Her edgy question as to whether Oliver had told him of her counterfeiting produced another sly reply laden with hidden meaning “Ay, and greater wonders than that.” Orlando gave this answer looking away from Rosalind into the distance as if Oliver had worked out that “Ganymede” was the real Rosalind simply from her swooning.

Yet dramatic convention allowed this apparent realisation to be forgotten and the action continued with Rosalind seeming genuinely concerned for Orlando’s condition and offering to ensure he would be married just like his brother.

The entry of Silvius and Phoebe sparked off the great “What ‘tis to love” sequence. The characters formed a line with Silvius stage right followed by Phoebe, then Rosalind and finally Orlando stage left. This meant that the repetition of the “And I for…” and “If this be so…” lines formed a chain reaction that began with Silvius, passed to Phoebe, skipped to Orlando and then bounced back onto Rosalind placing her at the centre of a rhetorical bombardment that she found stressful to cope with.

Her subsequent promises to her companions looked like the return of this rhetorical energy which had been focused on her and which she was now reflecting back.

Candles were lit and placed around the edge of the stage for the start of 5.3, which was kept as a musical interlude. The audience was encouraged to join in, turning it into a fun clap-along/sing-along. Audrey danced to the music (encouraged by an audience cry of “Go on, Audrey”) and flirted with one of the band. Touchstone was eventually obliged to prize her away, thus underscoring her sluttishness hinted at earlier.

The candles came into their own for the final scene 5.4 enhancing its magical atmosphere. Rosalind entered still as Ganymede and assured those present of her promises before going off.

Touchstone arrived with Audrey whose low-cut top was showing a lot of cleavage. His reference to her as a “poor virgin” was comical in the light of her behaviour in the previous scene. Touchstone ordered her to cover her chest, which she did obediently.

The degrees of the lie routine was delivered by the fool with some slight gestures, but nothing as animated as in the 2009 Globe production, where it became almost a series of dance moves. However, it still proved to be an exuberant and very watchable sequence. It was also obvious that Touchstone was trying to impress his social superiors with his manners, decorum and wit, but was failing miserably and proving a mere entertainment.

The director, Stephen Unwin, should be congratulated for bringing out the bawdy meaning of an almost throw-away remark whose lascivious overtones are rarely overtly staged.

He shoots, he scores

Having finished his long explanation of the degrees of the lie, Touchstone was overcome with the desire for a quick fumble with Audrey near the back of the stage. Standing in front of him the Duke explained how the fool used his folly like a stalking horse “and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit”. It was clear that at that instant Touchstone was definitely shooting his… something.

The unexpected entry of Hymen over the top of the mound was a very effective dramatic surprise. Wearing a golden garland and carrying a lit torch, he escorted in Rosalind and Celia, now wearing white wedding dresses and their heads crowned with garlands.

The reunions were tender and moving. Rosalind stood downstage centre as her father and Orlando each held one of her hands. This meant that the note of discord struck when Phoebe realised her hopes had been dashed was one that really did require Hymen to step in to “bar confusion”. After his blessing of the couples, they all sang the song in his praise.

Jaques de Boys entered over the mound with the ducal crown in a sack, which required a bit of disentangling from its fabric before it could be presented to the Duke in exile.

Such was the good mood at this point that even Jaques’ killjoy departure could not dampen the general atmosphere of jollity and the scene ended with some energetic dancing accompanied by rhythmic clapping by the audience.

Rosalind had to quieten the audience down for the epilogue (they had acted as if the play had really finished) and her line “If I were a woman” prompted Orlando to grab her consolingly as an ironic comment on her obvious femininity. She kissed Orlando passionately to much audience approval indicating that he had a breath that defied her not. This direct address to the audience, split between exhortations to the women and men, forged an even stronger bond with the crowd than the jig had done.

Conclusions

Despite the excellent performances of Jaques and Touchstone, this was Rosalind’s production. Her nerves and initial lack of confidence meant that she never really soared through the events in the play towards a predetermined happy end.

She always seemed to be on the brink of failure, both in keeping up her disguise and in swaying things in her favour. This made the happy ending even more magical and miraculous.

The temporary nature of any happiness or progress, underscored by her nerves, meant that Hymen’s resolution at the end of the play came as welcome relief. It seemed a very necessary addition to the plot, which left to its own human devices could not have reached a fortunate outcome. With the aid of this supernatural intervention, Rosalind smiled broadly for the first time as her troubles were fully resolved.

The theatre was half full on both nights I saw the production, a Saturday and a Wednesday. Despite this, the Rose Kingston audiences departed in a very happy mood, and their warm appreciation of the performance had hopefully compensated for the depleted numbers.

This was the only sour note. This excellent production had so much going for it in terms of acting, direction and cast, yet received only one substantial good review, from the Evening Standard.

If it had been put on anywhere in central London it would have been packed every night, but stuck out in Kingston it was sadly and undeservedly neglected.

Something needs to be done to bang the drum for the Rose Kingston’s great productions, but it looks like a tough fight. On any given night, their target audience is probably working in London. Faced with the choice of returning to Kingston or enjoying a production in central London, the capital will probably win out.

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