Theatre:Boys just want to have fun

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The Independent Culture
DURING one of the wooing scenes in Declan Donnellan's all-male production of As You Like It, Rosalind - in the person of Adrian Lester - encourages her lover by putting on a frilly apron over her trousers. So you have the spectacle of a boy playin g a girl playing a boy masquerading as a girl.

The senses reel, but not only at the gender confusion. The apron is a joke; but if one thing distinguishes Cheek by Jowl's show from routine revivals, it is the acknowledgement that the fun is in earnest. Rosalind says she is fathoms deep in love; and asLester plays it - initially as tongue-tied before Orlando in the forest as he was before her after the wrestling - she dives into the game to save herself from drowning.

First seen in London in 1991, the show returns garlanded with the critical spoils of a triumphant world tour. Foreign success is an uncertain recommendation, sometimes meaning a performance loaded with flashy business for audiences who don't understand the language. That is not the case here. This a blank canvas that gradually fills with action and colour, and you would get the story if you were stone deaf. But there is no separating text and physical invention in projecting the passionate playfulness that is at the heart of the comedy.

The show has developed a marvellous richness and precision of detail. It is a company event, excelling in group routines, elaborate scenic overlaps, and part-singing; at the same time, virtually every role is strikingly individualised. Take the treatmentof anger, often a weak point. There is no shouting. In the first scene, Oliver (Jonathan Chesterman) lies reading a book, ignoring Orlando's complaints until he is pulled into the fight. Likewise David Hobbs, as Duke Frederick, instils terr or through his court with a quiet, rational address - erupting only once into violence when he smashes the capering Touchstone (Peter Needham) out of his way. Both characters see themselves in the right, and only become sinister as a result of what they do.

Long-range characterisation is one of the show's trademarks, sometimes leading to unexpected results. Oliver arrives in the forest as a supposedly reformed character, only to reveal himself still a bully whom Rosalind patently dislikes. Celia (Simon Coates), a bossy friend to Rosalind at court, then loses her authority and goes through Arden as a queenly wallflower, shooting glances of freezing disapproval and turning her lines into suppressive put-downs. Starting from the assumption that Shakespeare's clowns are a dead loss, Needham scores his comic points from the fact that Touchstone never gets a laugh. And, by an effect acceptable only in an all-male company, Jaques (Michael Gardiner) becomes a camp outsider, cruising the forest in vain pursuit of a partner. You may not agree; but whatever happens is motivated and logical.

The arrival in Arden also brings a mass release from yokel stereotypes. The usually gormless Audrey (Richard Cant) becomes a yodelling blonde who teams up with Touchstone as a female clown. Phoebe (Wayne Cater) changes from a haughty nymph to a waddling Welsh sexpot, eyes glowing avidly under her tea-cosy fringe. Similarly, potentially cloying episodes are struct- urally reinforced: the letter scene, for instance, now becomes a reading lesson in which the mountingly anguished Silvius can only make out one word: "love". With all that, the main reason for seeing the show remains Lester's performance. There has not been such a Rosalind since the young Vanessa Redgrave.

At Stratford 20 years ago, Terry Hands directed a magnificent version of The Merry Wives of Windsor that conclusively released the play from its reputation as a potboiler. That, alas, is just what it seems in his new production. The intention is to show the action arising from a socially detailed context of the court, the merchant class, and the emerging Puritans. But, apart from costume and Timothy O'Brien's blackened oak settings, that is as far as it goes. The company, led by Denis Quilley's Falstaff, look fine on paper, but their performances consist mainly of shouting and running.

The root trouble is that they play as public entertainers rather than as characters following their own desires. The result is sometimes nonsensical; as when Maureen Beattie and Geraldine Fitzgerald's wives take up burlesque melodramatic postures to alarm the hidden Falstaff, who cannot see them. As they are only doing it for us there is no joke. Quilley, a lusty and still dashing figure, appears to advantage doing push-ups in preparation for his next house visit; Richard McCabe (Ford) comes affe ctingly back to earth after running domestically berserk. Otherwise it is conkers, leap-frog, a marching band and fireworks in Windsor Park. All very jolly and boring, as James Agate used to say.

Robin Don's sumptuous set for Sharman Macdonald's The Winter Guest consists of a house interior, a promenade, and a snowbound sea- coast that periodically lights up into a strand of glittering ice. Nothing less would have done for this landscape- dominated conversation piece in which the ages of man converge in a moment of frozen time. Two old ladies discuss their shared hobby of cremations and cream cakes: two boys (including the amazing David Evans), the thrills of puberty and dread of the treadmill f uture. A bold girl pursues a shy boy. And, centrally, a still-youthful grandmother (Phyllida Law, wonderful) seeks to hold on to her soured, workaholic daughter. There is no plot; but in Alan Rickman's impassively delicate production (his main-house directing debut), you are drawn into the life of each group, and left with a sense of their joint resonance. Macdonald can put the intangible into words. Her play offers a quiet, unemphatic experience that expands in the memory.

In Strindberg's Easter the grand master of domestic warfare offers a parable on reconciliation and the art of peace: showing a family bankrupted by an embezzling father, escaping its guilt and pariah status through the clemency of the father's chief creditor and the wisdom of his divinely deranged daughter. "Crime," as she puts it, "is punishment." It is a quiet and difficult play. Katie Mitchell has not made it easier by abandoning Strindberg's stage directions - which allow the dreaded creditor to app ear as a silhouette giant - in favour of yet another of her claustrophobic interiors; and by taking the title as a pretext for junking Haydn (as specified in the text) and substituting the grandest of Bach's choral works. Music of that magnitude simplyo verwhelms the play. From Adrian Rawlins's Strindberg-lookalike protagonist on, though, it is exceptionally well cast: above all in the seraphically childlike performance of Lucy Whybrow as the visionary sister, and in Philip Locke, who brings huge author ity and variety of attack to the role of the bloodsucker who turns out to be the family's greatest friend.

`As You Like It': Albery, WC1, 071-369 1730. `Merry Wives': Olivier, SE1, 071-928 2252. `Winter Guest': W Yks Playhse, 0532 442111. `Easter': Pit, SE1, 071-638 8891.

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