This brief season, before the theatre’s official opening next year, has been dubbed In The Raw, which I believe is a nice way of saying “the Portaloo is over there by the temporary bar. Oh, and don’t even think of taking your coat off in the auditorium.” The theatre is still very much a concrete shell, brickwork exposed and wires dangling. Fundraising is obviously the main motivation for this season, but this stark, unfinished arena proves to be an interesting performance space, and As You Like It, with its forest setting and tradition of open air staging, the ideal piece to make it work.
This production by The Peter Hall Company has already been well received internationally, playing at the Theatre Royal Bath and successfully touring the States last year. It stars Hall’s daughter, Rebecca in the main role of Rosalind, a truly wonderful performance that rapidly tramples any qualms about nepotism. Her delivery is crisp and expressive, and she invests the role with humour and emotion whether tongue tied and smitten in the early scenes or dashing and passionate in her exiled guise as Ganymede. Dan Stevens as Orlando never quite reaches her level. He’s undeniably sweet but, despite flooring his opponent in a well staged fight scene, he remains a wee bit wimpy. The rest of the company provide fine performances with the actors portraying Celia and Jacques coming across particularly strongly.
With its usual quota of cross-dressing, role reversal and mistaken identity As You Like It is often considered one of Shakespeare’s frothiest comedies. Hall’s production however revisits the full version of the text, highlighting the darker material in the earlier half of the play, the political coup d’etat against which Rosalind and Orlando’s love plays out. The theatre’s barren interior is used to convey the isolation of exile. Snow flutters down from the ceiling and the actors huddle in the centre of the stage as an icy forest backdrop is projected on the building’s bare concrete pillars. It’s a simple but incredibly atmospheric technique.
The play’s occasional musical interludes are woven seamlessly into the action, with the use of chorus and acoustic guitar giving the play a distinctive texture. The production does however drag somewhat in the middle as the various subplots are fleshed out, and you do feel Rosalind’s absence whenever Rebecca Hall is off stage. This is as accomplished a production of As You Like It as you could wish for, somewhat inevitable given Sir Peter Hall’s involvement – and it will be fascinating to see what he does with the Rose of Kingston once the builders have finally finished – however it’s the luminous performance of Rebecca Hall that really makes this production memorable.