In late 2009, director Eamon Flack masterminded a riotous production of Shakespeare’s frolicsome A Midsummer Night’s Dream
in Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre. It was cramped, it was chaotic – and it basically went off like Mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke
. But it remained to be seen whether Flack could deliver the goods in Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre – with another Shakespearean rom-com – for the sacred last slot of the 2011 season.
With Belvoir recently celebrating its 25th anniversary, there’s been much philosophising about the unique character of that Upstairs Theatre space and its fabled upstage corner. The first act of mischief in Flack’s production of As You Like It, though, is to engage with what seems like every architectural quirk in the room apart from that stage.
For the whole first Act, with the house lights still simmering, the performers cavort on the theatre stairs and come and go via the fire exit. Even our Rosalind (Alison Bell) is compelled to shuffle past a row of audience members (“Excuse me; excuse me; excuse me; excuse me…”). It’s irresistible having Shakespeare in and amongst the audience like this – provided you don’t have a crook neck – and Flack manages to sustain the arrangement long enough to do the drama justice too.
Before too long, though, we arrive in the Forest of Arden – imagined in a set by Alistair Watts as something like an empty stage at a nightclub. It’s here that the real hijinks begin. As it is, the original play is a big ol’ theatrical fruitcake: music, clowning, wordplay, ribaldry, cross-dressing, trickery (a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, really?) and a preposterously neat happy ending. Flack and his cast seize every opportunity to entertain and then some (and then some and then some).
If music be the food of love, the majority of Shakespeare productions serve up some god-awful dishes when turning the Bard’s poetry to song. But composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory shines in song-writing mode – I’m not just saying that for an excuse to highlight our recent interview with him
– and here he has the advantage of a roving violinist (Dan Russell) and a musically talented cast. The folksy choral number is an absolute showstopper and, yes, of course, Casey Donovan’s vocal cords are employed for maximum and terrific effect in the show. Touchstone lip-syncing to Rigoletto
and Hamish Michael’s Casio keyboard-wielding country priest are bonus musical highlights.
There’s also no shortage of superlative performances. Apart from her warm and intelligent presence onstage, Alison Bell has the stunning Midas-like talent of turning awkward moments into comedy gold – a dash of Liz Lemon, a pinch of David Brent. (Again, not just saying that for an excuse to highlight our recent interview with her
.) Watch her feelings play out on her face when she insists in vain that she was only pretending to faint and tell me she’s not one of the funniest performers in the country.
Bell’s Rosalind has the perfect sidekick in Yael Stone’s slapsticky Celia, and Charlie Garber is a total no-brainer for the role of the fool Touchstone (we’re not just saying that etc etc
). That said, Garber’s rascally antics probably won’t amuse everyone. His interactions with Gareth Davies will either be your idea of comic brilliance or the ultimate in-jokey self-indulgence. Add to that his tendency to blurt out explanatory footnotes or – tut, tut – shrug uncomprehendingly when confronted with archaisms. It’s the sort of thing that will make the younger audience members snicker while the Shakespeare purists burst into flames of righteous anger.
Bille Brown’s melancholy Jacques and all-round onstage gravitas also deserves a mention. His delivery of the towering “All the world’s a stage” speech is captivating precisely for its understatement – yes, that speech is from this play – and he handles the closing image of the production beautifully.
There’s also a recurring pantomime sheep act, with fantastically silly costumes by Mel Page, which deserves to be a show in itself. I hope Hamish Michael can take it in the spirit that it’s intended when I say that, as livestock, he puts in one of the performances of his career. (“He’s from Crownies,” as the woman behind me explained helpfully.)
As You Like It ought to be fun, and, well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit if this ain’t the funnest theatre production of the year. The sing-song at curtain call had all the euphoria of the final night of your local high school musical. (Rosalind and Orlando’s smooch actually felt like Disney’s High School Musical.)
If anything, it can only be accused of being too fun – or of prioritising levity over lucidity. With all the tomfoolery taking centre stage, the serious business surrounding the Dukes seems to have been misplaced, and the surprising end-of-play appearance of Jacques de Boys (Tim Walter) is all the more perplexing.
It says a lot about the entertainment value of the show that a clunky plot is so easily forgivable though. As You Like It is Shakespearean comedy as it ought to be: cheeky, accessible, hilarious, tightly paced and featuring Casey Donovan in a lion costume.