As You Like It.
Presented at Curve, Leicester, February 26-March 28, 2009. Directed by Tim Supple. Designed by Anna Fleischle. Music composed by Ashwin Srinivasan with Nitin Sawhney. Music performed by Tiken Singh. Lighting by Jackie Shemesh. With Munir Khairdin (Frederick and Senior), Natalie Dew (Celia), Tracy Ifeachor (Rosalind), Kevork Malikyan (Touchstone), Andrew Dennis (Charles, Corin), Abram Wilson (Courtier to Duke Frederick, Jaques De Boys, Amiens), Becci Gemmell (Hisperia, Audrey), Yasmin Bodalbhai (Gentlewoman to Celia, Phoebe), Louis Mahoney (Adam, Sir Oliver Martext), David Ononokpono (Orlando), Ery Nzaramba (Oliver), Stavros Demetraki (Dennis, Silvius), and Justin Avoth (Jaques).
Curve ("not The Curve," I was brusquely informed) is the new performance space in Leicester which replaces the Haymarket, currently boarded up and looking depressingly redundant. The new theatre, which opened without national fanfare--just wait till the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre opens in 2010 amid what can safely be predicted to be Garrickesque hysteria--is a beautifully conceived, glass-encased rotunda that houses a stage across its diameter flanked by two auditoria that face one another. The shared stage can thus be viewed from either the main theatre or the studio, or both, so that a large traverse performance space would be set between asymmetric audiences. Because there is no backstage area, the workings of the theatre are on display. Rehearsal spaces are housed within the building, though without internal structural connections between floors (to prevent the transfer of noise), and the costume and properties departments and workshops are all visible rather than being buried in the bowels of the complex as is more usual. The effect is not unlike that of the new City Hall near London's Tower Bridge which is made entirely of glass so that democracy can be seen to be done. At Curve, the mysteries of theatrical illusion are laid bare for all to see.
The siting of this new democratising building in Leicester is also of significance. The city was the first in the UK to achieve a majority nonwhite population as well as an Asian mayor. While the Leicester Haymarket struggled to attract an Asian audience to dramatic productions, if Curve is to be successful, this is a constituency it will have to crack. The appointment of Tim Supple as guest director to stage the theatre's first Shakespeare (and only the second show in the main house) is an appropriate choice in this respect. Deservedly lauded for his internationally touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was staged as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival and became known, thanks to its mixture of seven different Asian languages, as the Indian Dream (reviewed in Shakespeare Bulletin, 24:4 , 65-9), Supple has been director of Dash Arts since 2005, a company created "to work with artists across cultural, linguistic and social divides." Under his belt are adaptations of Haroun and the Sea of Stories (National Theatre, 1999) and Midnight's Children (RSC, 2002) by Salman Rushdie, as well as an explicitly multi-cultural film version of Twelfth Night (Channel 4, 2003) in which Viola and Sebastian are Hindi-speaking asylum seekers. As the names of the company members listed above indicate, this was predominantly a non-white cast and Supple had integrated this multi-culturalism into his conception of Shakespeare's play.
As well as his multi-cultural casting and vision, Supple's other trademark is a sombreness of tone. His Young Vic (1998) and Channel 4 film versions of Twelfth Night were both attacked for an earnestness deemed to be inapposite to Shakespeare's winning comedy. Even his Comedy of Errors (RSC, 1996) was felt to dwell too pensively on the impending death of Aegeon. Little wonder then that this As You Like It was a sombre meditation on political destructiveness, the savagery of predation, the dysfunctionality of family, sexual exploitation, and the vulnerability of old age.
This tone was set from the beginning with a violently explosive exchange between Orlando and Oliver. The deep apron stage was lit only at its downstage edge so the action of the brawling brothers threatened to tumble off the stage at any moment. The younger of the two siblings, Ononokpono's Orlando, was physically much more imposing than Nzaramba's Oliver, so there was a real sense of danger when the latter was headlocked by Orlando (whose strength here made his subsequent "surprise" victory over Charles not entirely unexpected). Both the episodes of the belligerent brothers and the defeat of the wrestler took place in the penumbra downstage while the sinister Frederick and his various henchmen materialised menacingly from the shadows upstage. Even in these opening scenes then, there was a sense of outer darkness, of conspiracy or power-politics veiled in shade. This feeling was maintained even after the transfer to the court, which was effectively signaled by the flying in of three ornate woven carpets as though the scene were culturally located within the Indian embassy. Both Rosalind and Celia wore gorgeous hooded saris woven with gold thread, a piece of which they pulled, veil-like, over their faces in a gesture of modesty when they addressed males'--Frederick or Orlando. The ambient darkness, the sense of the women being culturally oppressed and the violence of the fights all tended to militate against the lighter aspects of the scenes; for instance, Rosalind's affected, "He calls us back" when Orlando, dumb-struck, does no such thing, went for very little.
As Rosalind and Celia resolved to flee to the forest, they unwrapped their saris to reveal black undergarments--a top and a skirt in Celia's case and in Rosalind's, a top and a pair of long, loose pants--a neat prompt for her masculine disguise. As we moved away from court, the floorboards of the stage planking were hoisted up into the flies. Some disappeared aloft, exposing beneath them an earth floor and others were partly lifted onto one end and, suspended as diagonals, functioned as swaying trees and tangled briars of vegetation. Correspondingly, the fight began to work its way upstage revealing a greater expanse of playing space. Not that this new environment was comforting in any way: the hats, coats and draped blankets as well as the open fire burning on stage indicated that this was a landscape in which the "churlish chiding of the winter's wind" could not be dodged. Amiens too sings of "winter and rough weather" and Shemesh's lighting design was correspondingly glacial.
Suited to this icy landscape was Avoth's Jaques who, in tatty overcoat and huge unkempt beard and drawing hastily, between coughs, on a cigarette, looked every inch like a consumptive from Chekhov. His delivery of the seven ages of man speech took place in a theatre entirely blacked out except for the flames of an onstage fire. As Orlando entered bearing the exhausted Adam in his arms, the latter gasped and rattled what sounded like his final breaths. Later this sardonic Jaques reverted weirdly and atavistically to a vicious predator. At the kilting of the deer he entered, downstage centre, with a bucket of gore from which he daubed his own face in a ritual of sacrifice before leaping wildly about the forest clutching a pair of newly severed (both fleshy and bloody) antlers to his head. He was surrounded by hunters whose rhythmical stomping to the tune of "the lusty horn" suggested an act of mutual violence or even that the bonds of their exiled commune may have lain in their rapacious exploitation of the natural world.
Of course the central relationship of the play is that between Ganymede and Orlando. The second half opened with the remainder of the planks now vertically suspended and Orlando's love graffiti clearly visible. Rosalind, in black bomber jacket and jeans, brilliantly enacted her whole repertoire of inclinations, attacking, beating, hugging, embracing, and finally placing her triumphant foot on the chest of the supine Orlando: "would I ... grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles, for every passion something and for no passion truly anything." Ifeachor's was a brilliantly protean performance, never merely twee or comic but intelligent, motivated and calculating. Dew's Celia was similarly incisive, no more so than when reprimanding her companion for bringing their sex into disrepute. The delicacy of these central wooing scenes contrasted abruptly with the crudity of Touchstone's cynical treatment of Audrey and the cruelty of Phoebe towards Silvius. For once the director had made these minor love stories more than sentimental or mildly amusing sub-plots.
The long coda sequence was set by Rosalind and Celia, both of whom had reassumed their saris; they placed silk blankets and candles around what was now a fully visible stage. The couples were united in ceremonies drawn from a variety of religious services: Islam, Hindu, Jewish, African, Eastern European. Rosalind spoke Hymen's speech of blessing and the production ended with the news of the restitution of the rightful Duke. As the candles were blown out, we returned to the darkness of the opening section and, the comic comfort of the epilogue having been cut, were forced to contemplate that although the marriages offered fresh hope and new optimism, we were not all that far away from the shadowy world of violence and intrigue with which the production had opened.
PETER J. SMITH, Nottingham Trent University