There are times when a theatre critic is stymied. Sometimes there are, quite simply, no strong reasons for avoiding a show - but at the same time, there is nothing that makes it any way commendable. And there, in a nutshell, is the Peter Hall Company's presentation of Shakespeare's As You Like It at Bath.
The production has some pleasant aspects. Rosalind, the fast-talking, cross-dressing heroine, is played by a fresh new arrival on the theatrical scene, Rebecca Hall. Now, before cynics everywhere begin to tut, and aspiring young actresses whose fathers aren't grands hommes of the theatre heave embittered sighs, it should be pointed out that although Ms Hall is indeed Sir Peter's daughter, she earns her place on stage by giving one of the more exciting and memorable performances in this anodyne consommé.
Admittedly, she has a tendency to inject a little too much contemporary drawl into her delivery, but she does engage completely with the lines and thus draw in the audience. She shares with Michael Siberry (as the jester Touchstone) and Philip Voss (playing the melancholic Jaques) the ability to make Shakespeare sound fresh and new, as though the characters were actually making these words up on the spot rather than merely reciting them from the printed page.
This is in stark contrast to the formalised delivery favoured by other actors - including Rebecca Callard as Rosalind's cousin and companion, Celia - who are self-consciously "doing" Shakespeare with extreme care, as if handling the fragile holy relics of English literature. In their scenes together, there is an uncomfortable dissonance between Hall's living Shakespeare and Callard's cautious taxidermy of the Swan of Avon.
In a run-of-the-mill production, one would tend to blame the director for not rectifying such discords. When directing a classic work - which can make even the most confident performer freeze in the glare of an overfamiliar text - it is important to make sure that the actors speak the lines well. Yet this is no ordinary director - this is Sir Peter Hall. It might, therefore, be excusable if the great man overlooked these more workaday aspects of directing while wrapped up in blinding flashes of inspiration.
But if that were the case, one would expect to see those blinding flashes on the stage - and there is, sadly, none. This is a production that does nothing beyond the purely prosaic delivery of a Shakespearean comedy. The essence of the production is summed up perfectly by John Gunter's acceptable but utterly uninspiring set: it takes place in a forest, so you get tree trunks - a stolid backdrop to an uninventive production in which no aspect has either the strength or the conviction to make a lasting impression. It is a textbook presentation of As You Like It and, as a result, about as exciting as a textbook.
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