As You Like It
Every so often a director takes As You Like It, arguably Shakespeare's happiest play, and brings out the darker elements of it. That's exactly what David Freeman has done here, concentrating on the profound themes of dictatorship, oppression and injustice until everything is neatly tied up on a wave of optimism at the end.
Other people have tried without success to pull off such an interpretation, notably the RSC with a version in the Swan at Stratford four years ago. Freeman's production is similarly disappointing.
He sets the play in an eastern European state at any time during the past twenty years. Duke Frederick is a despotic leader intent on obliterating any threat to his empire and life at court is particularly harsh.
It's only when the action moves to the Forest of Arden that a sense of joviality lightens the production.
The main problem with Freeman's vision for this play is that most of the comedy has been taken out of it. I've seen some delightful versions of As You Like It which have endeared them to their audiences. Although certain parts of this interpretation are forward-thinking and refreshing, others just don't work.
There also seems a lack of consistency. Peter Harding is not venomous enough as the evil Duke Frederick although he is far better as the placid Duke Ferdinand, who leaves you in no doubt that it must have been fairly easy to depose him. And Richard Hansell (Oliver de Boys) isn't nasty enough towards his younger brother Orlando.
Richard Evans as the servant Adam is far too sprightly for an old man; some of the actors take four or five parts without differentiating enough between the characters; the majority of the singing is straight out of the auditions for The X-Factor; and Rosalind and Celia during the court scenes look out of place in their RAF-style uniforms.
But no more criticism. For As You Like It to have any chance of delighting an audience, there has to be chemistry between Rosalind and Orlando as well as between Rosalind and Celia. Here there's enough to rescue the production from slipping into the best-forgotten category.
Yesse Spence is a strong Rosalind who has the advantage of being able to revert to her native Australian accent when she disguises herself as Ganymede. Sarah Quintrell, despite a presumably nervous start when she speaks far too quickly, grows into a confident Celia. And Adam Burton who also appears in the early scenes to be aiming for a world record for the shortest running time for As You Like It develops into a mature performer who convinces you to ignore the intrinsic weaknesses of Shakespeare's hero.
There is also a superb performance from David Hobbs who is a joy as Jacques. It's one of the most difficult parts in the Shakespeare canon and the character can appear superfluous. But Hobbs finds anger and laughter as well as melancholy in Jacques.
As for the set, Dan Potra who was responsible for the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006 hasn't always presented ground-breaking work at Derby but here his design is exceptional. The chairs of Duke Frederick's court are raised to the roof and what I can describe only as fronds of fabric - not visible on the floor in the first instance - form the trees of the forest. It's ingenious stuff.
On the whole, though, this production is not vintage Shakespeare.
Since the current management took over, the Playhouse has staged four Shakespeare productions. This is the third of the four, after A Midsummer Night's Dream (2004) and Romeo and Juliet (2005), to have taken an unconventional look at the Bard's work. Only a more traditional Macbeth towards the end of 2005 appears to have been a critical success. Does that send out a message?
"As You Like It" continues until June 23rd
Reviewer: Steve Orme