As You Like It/The Tempest, Old Vic, London
Friday 25 June 2010
In a programme note for this second year of the Bridge Project, the British-American ensemble that tours the world with classical plays, director Sam Mendes reveals why he has paired As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Both plays deal with usurped and banished dukes and the bitterness of exile and he invokes Ted Hughes's suggestion that Prospero's Devil's Island can be seen as the post-tragic remnant of the Forest of Arden. In practice, though, these hit-and-miss productions do little to substantiate Mendes' claim that they form "a single gesture, a single journey". Handsomely designed and engagingly acted, they don't emerge as a joint revelation and fail to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
A master of sardonic understatement, Stephen Dillane is in his element as a wittily world-weary Jaques in the lively, modern dress As You Like It. Invested in a paper crown and a clown's red nose, he delivers the "Ages of Man" speech as a mocking parody of a virtuoso thesp. Breaking into song, he indulges in a droll impersonation of Bob Dylan, replete with harmonica flourishes. The actor's emotional diffidence is much less of an asset, though, in his performance as Prospero in a staging of The Tempest, which – despite the casting of a black actor, Ron Cephas Jones, as Caliban – avoids a colonialist reading in favour of presenting the piece as a hermetic meditation on the power and the limits of art.
The production finds many striking ways of highlighting Prospero's control of events. Bare-chested in a black suit, Christian Camargo's charismatic Ariel wields the magician's staff in the introductory storm in a manner that suggests both the precipitous tipping of the ship's rail and the steely manipulation of these unwitting mariners. Happiest when retreating to his books at the side of the small sand-strewn circle where his plot unfolds, Dillane's Prospero seems such a pensively sceptical and reluctant stage manager that you lose any tension-inducing sense of a hero who has to struggle towards mercy by first overcoming a violent impulse towards vengeance. The inwardness and privacy of this Prospero is taken, at times, to the extreme of muttering near-inaudibility.
Camargo makes another strong impression in As You Like It as an unusually reflective and melancholy Orlando who evidently finds it hard to shake off the ingrained habits of mistrust. He's partnered here by his real-life wife, Juliet Rylance whose splendid Rosalind enchantingly communicates the tumbling, impatient rapture of first love. She conducts the mock-wooing game with a lovely spur-of-the-moment impulsiveness and, unlike many Rosalinds, she does seem to embark on this course fully formed.
There's a nice, loopy vigour to the portrayal of the low-life comic characters – I particularly enjoyed the overbearing bossiness with which Ashlie Atkinson's big, busty Phoebe forces Silvius to play second fiddle. For all its pleasures, though, the production feels faintly underpowered; you don't sense that Mendes was bursting to direct the play. At the end of the matinee-and-evening marathon on Thursday, the applause was warm and respectful but stopped short of the standing ovation customary at such events.
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