It’s always challenging to make things funny, especially older writing and especially Shakespeare. Thankfully, this production manages to make you laugh out loud throughout while still keeping you firmly rooted in the advancement of the plot. The pace is fast, which is good as if it were any slower it would be draining, especially in the first half.
There is a strong cast involved that make this show what it is, and it being a comedy as opposed to a tragedy means that it is different from the majority of the shows involved in the current London Season. The cast gave a good account of themselves and were without a doubt the highlight of the show. Katy Stephens was the centre of the story and matched her importance with her ability. She had a vibrant energy that was the well from which her whole performance sprung and it was wonderful to watch. She switched between princess and witty gentleman with a natural ease. Her sung epilogue was the icing on a particularly delectable cake as she managed to add character to a speech in a completely different way to how she had constructed her character throughout. A remarkable feat.
Her relationship with Celia (played by Mariah Gale) was very well done, their familiarity as almost sisters through a mischievous childhood being brought very well to the stage, even if Gale’s character is one of the weaker members of the cast. The problem that she suffered from primarily was misdirected lines. A couple of times she said something that didn’t strike true and it was as if she didn’t quite know what she was saying and to whom. Her character shone when bouncing off Katy Stephens but on her own merits felt a bit try-hard and unprepared.
Gale wasn’t the only person to suffer from this ailment, the efforts of Charles Aitken as Oliver were similarly marred; his opening scenes (also the opening scenes to the show) were uninspiring and lacking in strong enough characterisation to feel right. This was disappointing as from the off his younger brother Orlando, played by Jonjo O’Neill, was driven and a much stronger, more developed character. This continued throughout as he grew from a young man with much to prove to someone humbled by affection. His lamentations in the Forest of Arden were well played, his nature remaining playful in his sorrows and well matched to Katy Stephens when she appears as Ganymede.
The Forest was played up to, Touchstone coming into his own as Richard Katz gave one of the best performances, alongside Katy Stephens. His humour was both witty and physical and both were just fantastically good fun. His falling over when ensnared by the brambles was as funny as his speedy ramblings. Credit must be given for his understanding of the lines. Of everyone I would say he understood best what he was saying, which must have taken a lot of work considering the density of what he had to say. His comedy was complimented well by Forbes Masson as Jaques, strolling through every now and again with his melancholy vim and guitar. There was a heavy musical element to the show that worked well, the guitar and strangely enchanting voice offered by Masson being the lead of the motley pack and was thoroughly enjoyable.
The smaller roles were also played well. The youthful energy of the body of the cast was offset well by the older roles, most notably the powerful and authoritative Sandy Neilson as Duke Frederick. His stern nature opposed the folly of youth very well. In almost direct opposition to this, the community of the forest was well acted with the likes of Christine Entwisle, Sophie Russell and James Tucker giving character to the forest that contrasted the court of the first half very well indeed.
It was clear in the interval that an effort had been made to immerse you in the comedic world of the play. The auditorium was suddenly full to bursting with cardboard sheets with Orlando’s love for Rosalind scrawled all over them. There was action on stage as well, with Richard Katz and Geoffrey Freshwater acting out the skinning of a rabbit. It was funny as well as a good introduction to the second half. What it did do very well was bring the relaxation of the interval into the second act, which in turn allowed it to flow more readily than the first half that had begun to slump towards the end.
The set was well constructed with trap doors and a completely reducible back wall that revealed the forest from the blankness that had been the court. It was basic but worked well and when the various scrawls of Orlando were introduced in the interval we also saw touches of green added to the previous brown foliage, which was a good touch, echoing the life that was about to be brought to the show.
All in all, there was very little that stopped this becoming a five-star show. The apparent lack of groundwork being done by a couple of the actors and a growing slump towards the end of the first half that appeared to coincide with a lack of Katy Stephens and Richard Katz were the only things that let the side down.
Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Michael Boyd; at the Roundhouse Theatre; Starring Katy Stephens, Richard Katz, Forbes Masson, Jonjo O'Neill, Mariah Gale, Sandy Neilson, Geoffrey Freshwater; Runs from 13 Jan 2011 to 05 Feb 2011 as part of the RSC London Season.
John Ord (17/01/2011)