As You Like It

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol
(2003)

There's a fascinating opportunity to compare 'Like' with 'Like' with the opening of Shakespeare's 'happiest' play at Bristol, hard on the heels of a new production of the same at Stratford.

On paper it seems an unequal contest: the venerable RSC; custodian of a long and proud history of excellence, heavily subsidised by the Government and able to attract some of Britain's best actors and a small, poorly funded ensemble in only its fourth season and eighth production.

And yet while the RSC struggles, the Tobacco Factory company under the inspired direction of Andrew Hilton goes from strength to strength, attracting rave reviews from the national press.

And as if to rub it in further, it was revealed earlier this year that the Barbican Theatre, formerly the London home of the RSC until Adrian Noble's decision to quit last year, was holding talks with the Bristol company with a view to the company bringing its productions to the capital.

SATTBC's latest offering is a characteristically ebullient, confident affair which finds the comedy and magic the RSC largely fails to in its production. In place of the clumsy stage which is taken apart and stood on end to form a far from romantic Forest of Arden in Stratford, the Tobacco Factory uses four pillars to serve as, pillars, and trees, freeing the audience to concentrate on the words and the action to which the company brings clarity, poetry and a sense of discovery.

There are fine individual performances, notably from Saskia Portway as Rosalind, who finds a winning mixture of assurance and vulnerability; Peter Clifford as the scheming and paranoid Duke Frederick who forces his brother to flee the court to the Forest of Arden, while David Plimmer as the fool Touchstone and John Mackay as the melancholic Jaques are deftly comic.

All the text is crystal clear in both senses, albeit helped by the intimacy of the venue which quite spoils one for almost any other theatre, so close does it bring you to the action. And, in contrast to the current production at the RSC, the three-and-a-half hours fairly skips by - no mean feat.

Here the action is located in the 18th century - in contrast with the RSC where it is the 19th century - in truth, neither adds much to the play but at least there are no jarring inconsistencies.

Critic Frank Kermode observed that of all the Bard's plays, this is the one which has perhaps most shows its age, by being so of its time. It is, as he notes, overwhelmingly literary and calls for some rather specialised historical information. In addition, some of the banter is tedious.

The plotting is perfunctory, the play itself is full of comic staples - the assumption by a female character of a male role - and yet, in the right hands the play can take flight. I sincerely hope that the RSC, which has produced some first-rate theatre even in the last few, troubled seasons, can find again its sense of purpose and confidence. Meanwhile, Shakespeare fans and theatre lovers generally should discover for themselves British theatre's best kept secret.

Reviewer: Pete Wood