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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon


  Katy Stephens, Jonjo O'Neill & Mariah Gale/Ph: Ellie Kurttz

This year's Shakespeare Birthday celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon were enlivened by the controversy surrounding the claim of the eminent scholar Stanley Wells that a Jacobean painting from the family collection of Mr Alec Cobbe, long held in Ireland, is a "life portrait" of the poet.

Several equally eminent academics have pooh-poohed Professor Wells's claim, for which there is little conclusive evidence, but RSC associate director Gregory Doran has mischievously suggested he hopes the portrait is one of Shakespeare as the fellow is so darned attractive his steady gaze, not unlike that in the Droeshout engraving that adorned the First Folio, is graced with a lower hair-line, fairer complexion, ginger face fuzz and a left ear that has plainly played host to many an earring.

I've seen Orlando in As You Like It played as a likeness of the famous Nicholas Hilliard portrait of the Earl of Essex, but you don't often see a Rosalind who invokes the bard himself. Katy Stephens, in the new RSC production by Michael Boyd, does just that, more straggle-haired than the Cobbe portrait, certainly, but fetchingly moustachioed and even neatly bearded as her woodland alter ego Ganymede.

There is nothing studiously "Shakespearean" about Boyd's general approach, though, which reflects the modern view that this comedy, with its themes of hardship, banishment, senescence and sudden shafts of hospitality is a companion piece to the later King Lear. But as in the season's opener, The Winter's Tale, the company is finding it hard to give generously in the bohemian section, and even the high spirits of Orlando's sonneteering campaign are dampened with an air of practicality.

The Courtyard itself is invaded by slogans and rhymes - there's even a current competition for young RSC patrons to improve on Orlando's doggerel themselves - and when Corin the shepherd (Geoffrey Freshwater) prefaces his discussion of court and country manners with Richard Katz's bendy-limbed, comical Touchstone by skinning a real rabbit, you know that there's more to the idyll than escape -there's grim survival.

Boyd is a puritanical director who never looks for loveliness or decorative theatrical effect in his work, and this does slightly damage a play as beautiful as As You. The costumes, apart from the sleek black Elizabethan garb in Duke Frederick's court, are almost emphatically grungy the slighter jokes of Touchstone are ruthlessly cut and Rosalind is denied her remarkable epilogue of ingratiation altogether.

But on the credit side, Jonjo O'Neill's Orlando is far less milky than usual, and Forbes Masson's Jaques is a possessed insomniac with a hauntingly melodic voice (he steals the songs from the huntsman Amiens, who's deleted), not the self-indulgent poseur the miserable melancholic can become. "All, the world's a stage" is done with a sharp metallic edge and, unsurprisingly, we are not spared the brutality of the hunting scene, Celia's dream becoming a bloody nightmare.

The friendship between Rosalind and Celia is strongly conveyed by Stephens and Mariah Gale - such an outstanding Ophelia to David Tennant's Hamlet - even though Gale finds more good-heartedness than comedy in the role (one thinks of Amanda Harris more or less stealing the play from under Lia Williams's nose in a recent RSC version).

There is sterling, rather than exceptional, support from two black actors, Clarence Smith and Ansu Kabia, as Rosalind's banished ducal father and the kindly, courteous Le Beau, and the wrestling of David Carr as the wicked duke's hit man is, again unsurprisingly, vicious t


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