fri 19/07/2024

As You Like It/The Tempest, Old Vic, London | reviews, news & interviews

As You Like It/The Tempest, Old Vic, London

As You Like It/The Tempest, Old Vic, London

Sam Mendes has an original take on an odd double bill

The Tempest: Edward Bennett and Juliet Rylance as the lovers, and Stephen Dillane as Prospero

The second season of the Bridge Project - a transatlantic relationship forged between between Kevin Spacey, artistic director at the Old Vic in London, theatre and film director Sam Mendes, and Joseph Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music - which aims to make theatrical connections in a series of cross-cast co-productions with American and British actors, has opened with a double header of Shakespeare.

At first sight, As You Like It and The Tempest may not appear obvious bedfellows but, as Mendes (who directs both plays) points out in his programmes notes, they both feature a bloody sibling rivalry and a touching father-daughter relationship, and he subtly underlines those parallels.

Mendes’s As You Like It is not the frothy pastoral comedy we are so used to seeing; rather his is a sombre, more mature reflection on love, both familial and romantic. We see very clearly that love can be fickle or unwise, and that true love has to be earned. And even the Forest of Arden, often the most bucolic of settings, is here a cold and barren place, simply contrived in Tom Piper’s set.

Rosalind, like her father Duke Senior, is banished by his usurping brother Duke Frederick (both played by Michael Thomas). With her cousin Celia (Michelle Beck) and jester Touchstone, Rosalind goes to join her father in the Forest of Arden, where he is camped out with his loyal followers. In a pleasingly neat bit of staging, the transition from comfy court to freezing forest is shown by having the wicked duke and his courtiers move upstage from the shadows and don overcoats and become the good brother and his fellow exiles.

Meanwhile, Orlando (Christian Camargo), a young gentleman who is in love with Rosalind, also flees his home after being persecuted by his older brother, Oliver (Edward Bennett). When they meet in the forest, Rosalind, by now disguised as a man, Ganymede, seduces the lovesick Orlando by making him practise his wooing on him/her. Their scenes are particularly delightful - not surprisingly as Rylance and Camargo are married in real life.

The play stands or falls by Rosalind and Rylance is quite superb in the role. She conveys not just girlish giddiness when she falls for Orlando, but gritty steel when she confronts her uncle, and is a pleasingly lively presence on stage. By contrast, Stephen Dillane’s Jaques feels too downbeat even for that world-weary role and his “seven ages of man” speech is rather oddly delivered. His is an annoyingly actorly performance, but at least there is some measure of comedy in his singing, delivered in the style of Bob Dylan. Talking of comedy, even the frightful old windbag Touchstone is funny here; he is cleverly, knowingly played by Thomas Sadoski.

All the smaller roles are played with real heart, particularly by Aaron Krohn as the innocent shepherd Silvius and Ashlie Atkinson as the object of his affection, Phoebe. This is a fresh and heartwarming production of an old favourite.

The Tempest, even though it has a storm as its starting point, is given a pleasingly down-to-earth reading by Mendes. Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, was usurped by his brother, Antonio, 12 years before the play starts, when he was aided by Alonso, the King of Naples. Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, were despatched from Italy on a small boat and came ashore on a deserted island with only two inhabitants, the spirit Ariel and the slave Caliban. Now, as the play begins, Prospero determines to regain his dukedom and uses sorcery to conjure the tempest that shipwrecks Antonio, Alonso and their entourage and delivers them to his island.

The vast, open stage has a large sand-filled circle at its centre, and Prospero, when not speaking, sits to one side with his book of spells placed on a music stand in front of him; like Ariel, he is an ever-present and all-seeing presence. The miscreants may be caught in this curious, seemingly bewitched and time-warped place, but we are allowed to see Prospero orchestrating events, thereby suggesting supernatural happenings are merely tricks of the mind.

Rather than the usual Sturm und Drang vision of a vengeful ex-ruler using the dark arts to right the wrongs done to him, this Tempest at times feels more like a family reunion. The relationship between Prospero and Miranda (Rylance, again magnificent) is given more prominence than usual and he is touchingly supportive of her love for Ferdinand (Bennett), son of Alonso. Meanwhile members of the court sit upstage when they are not speaking, as if they are guests at a wedding, and at one one point an old home movie of Miranda as a young child is projected on the back wall. It’s one of a few quirky and oddly affecting moments in Mendes’s stylised production. Continuing the family theme, Dillane’s Prospero acts at times like an exasperated but diligent father in his scenes with Ariel and Caliban, and they could almost represent the yin and yang of his personality; the fey Ariel (a superb Camargo) is a free spirit, while the bitter and scheming slave Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones) is forever earthbound. Caliban’s first entrance, where he suddenly appears struggling up through the sand, is one of many clever uses of Tom Piper’s simple but effective set.

Even though it’s staged at a brisk two hours and 15 minutes without an interval and every ounce of the play’s comedy is played (particularly well by Anthony O’Donnell as Trinculo), this Tempest can descend into occasional torpidity; Dillane is certainly the quietest Prospero I have ever seen, with none of the bombast that some actors like to play him with. But problems with Dillane’s diction persist as here he speaks so softly that many of his lines are lost - and that’s a shame, as this is a humane, insightful and original reading of the play.

Dillane is certainly the quietest Prospero I have ever seen

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