Theatre: Celia, you're breaking my heart

Adrian Turpin on two new versions of `As You Like It'
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The Independent Culture
Peter Brewis's As You Like It (BAC) has a deceptive beginning. In Oliver's orchard, a single red apple hangs in the air, immediately to be plucked and eaten. Charles the Wrestler plonks his huge frame down on to a child's chair. The tone is sinister, the set likewise. Veiny tree roots creep out from one corner of the stage but, this apart, Arden resembles not so much a forest as an ocean, all sea greens and blues, with a whirlpool of squirls centre- stage.

Well, perhaps you can read too much into a design. There is nothing remotely dark about Peter Brewis's production. Julia Barrie's Rosalind is of the type Michael Billington once called "the hoydenish thigh-slapper who looks as if she's feverishly awaiting the arrival of Dick Whittington's cat"; Orlando tries to strangle his brother early on, but makes up for it by being squeaky clean thereafter; and Jacques (played by Peter Pacey as Arden's answer to Reggie Perrin) is more waggish than melancholy.

None of which is necessarily a bad thing: nothing wrong, after all, with a jolly Arden, and this production does have the tremendous benefit of clarity. But the way Brewis fights shy of anything remotely resembling a sub-text has its price, and nowhere more so than in the relationship between Celia and Rosalind. The pair are so emotionally close to each other that, when Rosalind is expelled from court, Celia tells her that "thou and I are one". Here, though, there's little sense of that closeness, or of how Rosalind's love for Orlando threatens to destroy it, and even her tortured outburst to Rosalind, "You have simply misused our sex in your love prate", becomes little more than a momentary strop.

From one extreme to another: if the BAC As You Like It begs the question "How little attention to the sub-text can you get away with in Shakespeare?", Wicked Bastard of Venus (Southwark Playhouse) demands "How much?".

The answer seems to be "a lot", if you're as inventive as Julie-Anne Robinson. Robinson has taken As You Like It, reduced the cast to just Orlando, Celia and Rosalind, added a few blues songs, played fast and loose with the dialogue, and relocated it to what appears to be a building site. She's also turned it into a love triangle. Celia loves Rosalind, who loves Orlando, who loves, well, himself.

What's so clever about this sexy, beautifully acted piece is that Robinson has managed to gut the play, and then rebuild it, without damaging its structure. This is done by some delightfully mischievous meddling with the text, of the kind that sends you running to the script to work out who really said what. So that, for example, in As You Like It Rosalind tears a strip off the peasant Phoebe for being "proud and pitiless" in love. But in Wicked Bastard, Celia uses the self same words to Rosalind, hoisting her by her own petard.

Needless to say, it all ends in tears. This Orlando isn't fooled for a minute by Rosalind's disguise as the boy Ganymede. Rather, he laughs like a hyena as he watches her struggle into a man's overcoat - and Robinson's last act of mischief is to turn one of Shakespeare's strongest women into a victim.

n `As You Like It' to 30 June (0171-223 2223); `Wicked Bastard of Venus' to 22 June (0171-620 3494)