Theatre: Too much of the bard, no matter how much you like it

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The Independent Culture
THE BATH Shakespeare Festival offers anyone who likes their Bard in seven-hour megadoses the opportunity to see the English Shakespeare Company's latest offerings performed back-to-back. But only those with buttocks of steel and the kind of upbringing where one had to eat one's cabbage in order to get one's ice-cream should avail themselves of this offer. Despite dramaturge Ros King's attempt in the programme notes to find some parallels between the two plays, their presentation together goes mainly to highlight the fact that even Shakespeare had his off-days, with the sweeping grandeur of Antony and Cleopatra standing head and shoulders above the feeble complications of As You Like It.

Both directed by Michael Bogdanov, leading exponent of "bringing Shakespeare to the people", the productions are uncompromisingly contemporary in their approach. They both feature the same company of 14 actors, and utilise the by now customary mixture of stripped down sets and modern day dress. No one has yet managed to satisfactorily explain why Kalashnikov-toting soldiers should carry swords, though.

Unfortunately, the limitations of the sets in both plays remove the opportunity to envelop Egypt in the rich stench of incense and decadence - the very aspect which so delights and repels the Roman visitors - or engender the similar intoxication of the mystical Forest of Arden. Yannis Thavoris's set for As You Like It consists of three mobile chrome and smoked glass towers fitted with venetian blinds. The cool clinicality of this stylistic minimalism leaves the Forest a stark and sterile place, lacking the magical and transformative strangeness and fecundity which might explain the explosion of love and lust which occurs within it. The staging and costuming of the Forest scenes are more Grapes of Wrath than Robin Hood, which does at least allow Bogdanov to transform the endless songs littering the play into foot-tapping guitar and harmonica blues numbers.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Geraldine Bunzl's inspiration appears to come - appropriately enough - from the Memphis School, with a sleek Docklands concoction of green marble and obelisks (domestic size) reminiscent of the atrium of a transnational investment bank. A not inappropriate image, since Tim Woodward's Antony is a middle-aged man at the peak of his career, revelling - like any successful plutocrat in the bar of the Waldorf Astoria - in the power which has accrued to him and the beauty of the lustful career girl on his arm.

In this Battle of the Suits, Octavius (David Shelley) is the Bill Gates of Antiquity; the unlikely young geek sweeping all before him. Woodward also makes a solid impression in As You Like It, playing wandering courtier Jacques as the mackintosh and trilby-clad Irishman who can be found propped in the corner of many a pub, dispensing misanthropy and philosophy over a glass of whisky. In this persona, Jacques' world-weariness and omnipresence become considerably less contrived.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt (again), Cathy Tyson seizes the role of Cleopatra and plays it at full strength. This is no vapid, droopy, expiring fag- end of a royal line, drowning in the decadence of excess. She is also far from the languid animal that one might expect from Tyson. This is a woman who combines regality with playfulness: a practical-joking, hard- drinking success in her own right who can run the gamut of emotion from lust to fear and then run a country in conflict with her personal desires. In Tyson's Cleopatra, one can clearly see the conflict between the head that wears the crown of Egypt and the heart that loves Mark Antony.

One benefit of using a small cast to perform both plays is that it allows truly talented actors to reveal their strength even when covering a handful of smaller roles. In this regard, John Labanowski and David Mara shine demonstrate how Shakespeare can be delivered not as an old and valued relic but as drama fresh from the pen. When Labanowski's grizzled veteran, Enobarbus, describes "The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne", it could be a segment taken from tomorrow's From Our Own Correspondent. His performance as Charles the Wrestler in As You Like It, with its clarity and contemporary feel, suggests that he has the potential to give us a Falstaff for the 21st century.

Mara, meanwhile, covers a sweep of roles from rustic Corin to management maestro Lepidus with excellent pacing, versatility and a style which proves that blank verse need not be delivered with the strident emphases and stylised diction so often deployed when "playing the Bard". If one of the ESC's missions is to make Shakespeare appealing to a 1990s audience, then it could do far worse than continue promoting these two fine actors.

Any production which seeks to do new things with old material will, unavoidably, feature ideas that don't quite work. As You Like It contains a bizarre dream scene in which Orlando becomes a deer killed by Rosalind, and a rap version of "It was a lover and his lass" which, whilst amusing, is startlingly incongruous. Contemporisation is fine if it abides by the rules of its own internal logic.

Both plays also feature set pieces which go on too long, breaking the rhythm of the performance: the wrestling contest in As You Like It and Pompey's dance feast in Antony and Cleopatra. There are also enjoyable touches, such as the prologue to the latter in which breathless journalists provide the historical background for those lacking a classical education.

Overall, these plays are solid presentations of familiar scripts. That they do little to advance the contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare, and represent merely a consolidation of some of the groundbreaking work that has gone before, is probably in their favour in attempting to draw a fresh mass audience to Shakespeare's work. Antony and Cleopatra is a play which will appeal as much today as any television drama. And any suggestion that As You Like It is worth avoiding is probably just the crabbing of a critic who has sat too long in a theatre wishing he was watching one of Shakespeare's better comedies.

Both plays run until 29 August. Box office: (01225) 448844