Sir Peter Hall’s Production of The Bard’s
Sir Peter Hall’s acclaimed production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It has finally come to San Francisco, with 23-year-old Rebecca Hall as a very young, modern Rosalind. The New York Times has called her “a ground-breaking Rosalind.” This production originally premiered in August 2003 at England’s famed Theatre Royal Bath, followed by the American premiere at New Haven’s historic Shubert Theatre.
As You Like It is one of the few works of Shakespeare that has a “Hollywood ending” since all are happy at the end. I first saw the famed Sir Donald Wolfit production in 1947 with the great Shakespearian actor playing Touchstone. (Critics at the time said of the actor, who was a great ham and the subject of Harwood’s The Dresser, “Olivier is tour de force, and Wolfit is forced to tour.”) One of the greatest memories I have of the play is of the brilliant Katherine Hepburn playing Rosalind to William Prince’s Orlando at the Cort Theatre in 1950. The great British character actor Ernest Thesiger played Jacques and in the cast was a young Cloris Leachman playing Celia and Jay Robison as part of the Duke’s court. I also saw a wonderful all-male version at the Mark Hellinger in 1974. Since that time I have seen three productions in the UK, the memorable in 1985 with Juliet Stevenson playing the lead, plus a more recent production at the OSF several years ago with Deirdre Henry as Rosalind, which took place in the wild west of the 1870s.
Sir Peter Hall has gone the full route with a straightforward, no frills, three-hour production that is basically uncut. Every word of William Shakespeare is in the play with no shortening of scenes. That said, sometimes the production seems to lag in spots due the excess of words. There is also difficulty with the language, especially the first three scenes in the court of Duke. (On opening night there were sound difficulties and the words were bouncing around the large theatre.) Due to the large theatre, the actors are miked with some almost whispering while other voices boom over the sound system.
As You Like It centers around Rosalind (Rebecca Hall) and Orlando (Dan Steven) who find love at first sight in the Palace of Duke Frederick. Orlando is exiled by his older brother Oliver (Freddie Stevenson) for various political reasons. Rosalind is later exiled because her father has been usurped from the throne. Both flee to Forest of Arden where the deposed duke is now holding court. Orlando goes to the court while Rosalind, who is now dressed as a boy to divert suspicion, finds shelter with an intelligent shepherd Corin David Barnaby) and his son Silvius (David Birkin). Celia (Rebecca Callard), daughter of the current Duke Frederick also flees to the forest with Rosalind. Orlando and Rosalind (now in drag) chance upon each other in the woods and we find that Orlando is still infatuated with Rosalind. Rather than inform the young lad who she is, Rosalind offers to cure him of his love sickness by letting him woo her as if she is his sweetheart. Only Shakespeare could think of this plot. The stage is set for blind love to overcome one misguided fool after another.
Of course, there are subplots running through the three hours, including colorful mixtures of hilarious rustics and witty courtiers. There is the caustic clown Touchstone (Michael Siberry), the melancholy Jaques (Philip Voss) who does a wonderful oration of “all the world’s a stage” that demands applause from the audience, a philosophical Duke and his usurping brother (both played by James Laurenson), a love sick and somewhat dumb shepherd Sivius who is hopelessly in love with Phoebe (Charlotte Parry), and a robust goat herder named Audrey (Janet Greaves) plus other interesting characters.
The actors speak in natural conversational ease with wonderful flexibility, especially the male actors while the two female leads Rosalind and Olivia tend to modernize their conversation and sometimes speed up as young girls tend to do when talking among themselves. They do not seem to be intimidated by the Bard’s structures, which causes some lost of words to the audience.
Rebecca Hall could use a little more experience as an actor of the Bard’s words. She presents the role entirely different from Rosalinds I have seen in the past, bringing a certain pluckiness to the part. There is a natural uncalculated charm about her, especially when she is dressed as a lanky peasant boy. She’s a tall brunette with beautiful eyes and she makes a lovely lanky boy when in drag. Even her blushing in several scenes seems very natural.
Dan Steven as Orlando is making his professional debut, and this young man is a terrific actor. He plays the character as a sweet, swooning lad whose awkwardness is counterbalanced by an unexpected strength, both of physique and character. He has a great theatre voice and wonderful charisma on stage.
Michael Siberry, dressed in an outlandish vaudeville clown suit, is very good as Touchstone, playing the role like an old time burlesque comedian. Occassionally he throws away his lines. Diminutive Rebecca Callard gives a certain impishness to Celia. She is excellent even when not speaking, watching with judgmental annoyance Rosalind's game of playing with several of the characters. David Birkin and Charlotte Parry are funny as country bumpkin characters Silvius and Phoebe. Janet Greaves is properly lusty as the Audrey. As a goatherd, her West County accent is perfect. James Laurenson, playing both the usurping Duke and his banished brother, gives true Shakespearean form to his philosophical musings of life. Philip Voss as the melancholy Jaques is marvelous with his striking crystal clear voice, especially in the famous speech on the ages of man.
John Gunter's sparse space design is very good, with a large convex back screen with projections ranging from the forest in the winter to a spring scene with large birch trees coming down from the rafters. He uses simple squares of carpeting downstage to redefine locations: rough turf for Orlando’s wresting match, royal red for the court, a white sheet for the forest in winter and green lawn for summer.
As You Like It runs through May 1 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-512-7770, through ticketmaster.com; at the Orpheum Theatre at 1192 Market at 8th and at all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers. Also showing is the pre-Broadway engagement of Lennon at the Orpheum Theatre through May 14. I Am My Own Wife at the Curran opens on May 3 and runs through May 29.