AS YOU LIKE IT, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Gregory Doran's colourful production is a collector's item: it is entirely free of irony, a rare occurrence on any Shakespeare stage. The actors speak as if they literally believe every word they utter. Jaques' "Seven ages of man" is an unemphatic statementof fact. Celia's "Was is not is" is similarly delivered.Duke Senior speak his"uses of adversity" speech with heartfelt conviction.
Alexandra Gilbreath's husky-voiced Rosalind transmutes into an attractive youth, always in motion, driven by her passion for Orlando. She is full of restless inventive action, but delivers Shakespeare's mockery of love with a seriousness of intent in keeping with the whole production.
This literal style gives students a wonderful opportunity to get to the heart of the play. They read in their editions that As You Like It is Shakespeare's satire on the pastoral romance tradition. If that is true, shouldn't the actors show they have very mixed motives for what they say? As usual in Shakespeare, that question is best answered in the portrayal of the Fool.
Adrian Schiller plays Touchstone as a nervous Buster Keaton lookalike. But strangely, this jester clearly means everything he says. He gives no hint of ridicule in his exchanges with Corin, and he transparently enjoys "There was a lover and his lass". This Touchstone joins in, casting himself and Audrey as the focus of the song. It's an enjoyable episode, but whether it expresses Touchstone's function in the play will provoke heated student discussion. Shouldn't a clown be corrupter of words?
Students will learn much from how Doran distinguishes court from country, especially in Ian Hogg's doubling as Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. The first is a brutal psychopath who fells Touchstone with a blow and patently enjoys the suffering of others. In contrast, Duke Senior is wholly gentle and tender.
There is a similarly dramatic change of set and costume. Any textile students in a school party will have a field day in Arden. The costumes are amazingly beautiful. The first entry of Rosalind and Celia, both looking like the young Queen Elizabeth I, is breathtaking. In the forest, from Rosalind's pullover to the flowered screen that descends with Hymen, the colourful influence of Doran's design team is evident.
As with the acting, the stage set is unambiguous. The trees are reminiscent of provincial pantomime, neither mysterious nor menacing. There is no sign of the icy fang of the winter's wind, no feel of cruelty in the hunting. There's no clock in this Arden, but there are plenty of scatter cushions.
The students who will argue most fiercely over Doran's staging are those sixth-formers whose Shakespeare studies include critical theory. This is a production in which what you see is what you get, innocent of any social comment - it truly is a presentation of fairytale romance.
It is curious that the RSC begins the millennium with such a happy production, as if subtext had never been invented.
Rex Gibson As You Like It runs until October 5. For tickets call: 01789 403403. The RSC website can be foundat: www.rsc.org.uk