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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Rosalie Craig and Joe Bannister/ Ph: Johan Persson

Polly Findlay is a joyously, audaciously high-concept director. Nurtured by the National Theatre as one of the most talented of an upcoming generation of theatre-makers, she has previously re-imagined the Greek tragedy Antigone in a grim 1970s police state, eerily redolent of the machinations of the Stasi in the acclaimed German film The Lives of Others. Now she gets to work on the Forest of Arden, in the National’s first production since 1979 of this much-loved Shakespeare comedy. All outings of this play depend heavily on that crucial moment of transformation, when court life – stuffy, constricted – gives way to a forest of limitless fluidity and possibility. How would Findlay imagine this change?
Brilliantly, is the short answer, although she gives cause for concern in the run-up. The play opens to a stage banked with desks of computers, with pitiful little potted trees dotting the dismal office environment. Worker drones push paper frantically. Overseeing this soulless scene is Oliver (Philip Arditti), harsh eldest son of the late Sir Rowland de Bois, who longs to be rid of his dreamy youngest brother Orlando (Joe Bannister). We can just about buy into this gloomy corporate picture, but a wrestling match in the middle of the office strains credibility too far. Yet Findlay has a wonderful eye for stage tableaux, as she and designer Lizzie Clachan prove with a stunning transition. All the colourless office furniture is dragged clattering up into the air, to be reassembled as a giant towering tree. Arden has arrived, and we are glad of it.
There are two pairings vital to the success of As You Like It: that of the lovers Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) and Orlando, of course, but also Rosalind and her cousin Celia (Patsy Ferran), with whom she escapes into the forest in search of her already-exiled father. Craig gives a bright and lively turn, but never quite convinces that she has tumbled "fathoms deep in love" with Bannister’s rather bland Orlando. The best performance of the evening is far and away that of the increasingly wonderful Ferran, among whose many attributes is the priceless gift of a funny face. Celia is a tough ask of a part; the character is on stage a lot but with a decreasing amount to say. This doesn’t hinder the expressive Ferran, who keeps the character in mischievous, playful form even when she’s wandering around the edge of the stage looking in at the mock-wooing between "Ganymede" and Orlando. My eyes kept being drawn to this fine actress, for whom I predict a glittering career.
Music is an integral part of Findlay’s vision here, and she is well served by music director Marc Tritschler, who oversees an intricate soundscape of voices. A human choir, some perching in the branches of the furniture-tree, provides a constant background of nature-noise and contributes to the beautifully colourful finale of song and dance that accompanies the multiple weddings. Arden at last becomes ardent, and it’s a memorable closing image.


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