The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Anything Goes

Review, BBC Shakespeare, 2006. We were all so much younger then.


AS YOU LIKE IT

Quite a few thoughts on this one.


As the epilogue makes it clear, this is Shakespeare's 'chick flick'. It's his Bridget Jones Diary. It's a play designed to make women feel they’ve got one up on men, and a play men go to see in the hope of getting off with the women they've gone to see the play with. It's about women coming on top, in more ways than one.

You can kind of see a progression in the comedies, as Shakespeare moves from 'blokey' stuff to 'chick' stuff. The Comedy Of Errors, that's farce by clockwork, with the female characters merely cut-outs to be nudged onto and off the stage. Taming of the Shrew, very blokey. Two Gentlemen of Verona, things are softening but it's still mainly about the boys. Love's Labour’s Lost, a load clever-clever bollocks about fops clearing their throats into their hankies, one for the nerds.

And then the see-saw tips to become level. A Midsummer Night's Dream is as much about the girls as the boys. Merchant of Venice is a game of two halves, half a boys play, half a girl's play, stitched together down the middle. Romance for the girls, courtroom intrigue for the chaps.

And then - clunk - we come down in favour of the girls. Much Ado About Nothing is Beatrice's play. Much as I would love to pretend the Merry Wives of Windsor never happened, it is a clear continuation of the trend, as each play sees a strengthening, an increased emphasis, on the female double-act of clever, witty, feisty, independent-spirited girl and her slightly more moist and wide-eyed, easily-led and wet-nosed, and somewhat less smart and attractive sidekick. Think Hermia and Helena, Portia and Nerissa, Mistress Ford and Page, Beatrice and Hero... and Rosalind and Celia.

So that's where the emphasis lies. It's about the girls, the boys are mere accessories, plot ciphers or simply just pratfalling for comic relief.

Another odd thing about this play is its - oh, god, I've forgotten the term - it's that thing for when something fictional has characters who are semi-aware about the fact that they are fictional. There are various big cues for this - the epilogue, for instance, and the famous speech about 'All the world being a stage' - of which more later - but the most incongruous example is when Jaques points out that he finds it distasteful that another character’s speaking in blank verse and would rather leave than listen to another word of it.

Now, this is strange. I mean, it is clearly part of the magic and the theatricality of the play, but it also raises problems in my nerdy brain, because if the characters are sort-of half-aware that they are 'characters' in a fiction, then how 'real' is it to them? In particular, and this is something that got me thinking, is the scene where Orlando doesn't recognise the love of his life, Rosalind, because she’s dressed as a boy.

Or does he?

Is he really taken in by what is, to put it mildly, an absurd theatrical conceit. Or is he merely playing along with it in some sort of self-aware sense? On the one hand, you have the character of Phoebe, who is clearly meant to be so stupid and self-obsessed that she is taken in by it (but then, she has never seen Rosalind as a girl so has no point of comparison). On the other hand, you have Oliver, who clearly sees through Rosalind's disguise in a first instant, and is merely taking the piss when he pretends that he has been taken in. 'The boy is fair, of female favour, and bestows himself like a ripe sister,' and later 'You, a man?! You lack a man's heart.' He asks her to 'counterfeit' to be a man... and in Act 5, before she has revealed herself to be a woman, Oliver is slyly referring to her as 'sister'.

So the question is - is Orlando really taken in? Is he stupid, or is he merely pretending to be stupid in order to indulge Rosalind? And does Rosalind think she has taken Orlando in - or does she think he is merely playing along with her?

That's where this play's self-awareness gets confusing, because, if some of the characters are half-aware they are in a theatrical construct, then Orlando can also be at least half-aware of Rosalind's deception. It gets even more confusing if you remember that Rosalind would be played by a boy. A boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl.

I mean, you may have thought The Schizoid Man was complicated, but it's nothing compared to this.

But there you have it, it's a play for those who like boys to be girls to be boys to be girls. Always should be someone you really love.

Which, come to think of it, is what the title means. Otherwise it’s vague to the point of being meaningless. But I think it's 'As you like it', in the sense of, 'Whatever turns you on' or 'Anything goes'. Boys chatting up (what they think are) boys pretending to be girls, girls chatting up (what in reality are) girls, it's like a little piece of Gay Pride all in itself. But without a personal appearance from Miss Danni Minogue.

The fact that the play features four couples getting it together reminds me of Love's Labour's Lost, and if I had to pluck a candidate for which play may actually be a re-working of the withdrawn, de-accessioned and junked Love's Labour's Won, it would be this one. You would have to force me to choose, I wouldn't be happy, but if I had to put my tick in a box then it would be the box for As You Like It.

I was pre-disposed not to enjoy the BBC production, because I'd seen this play before, a couple of years ago in the West End with Sienna Miller and Helen McRory and they RUINED it for me by crinkling their toffee wrappers all the way through. No, that's not true, that's just me being hilarious, they were actually on the stage and I was sitting in the audience. Helen McRory was being a little bit extraordinary as Rosalind and Sienna Miller was a bit tepid, if not altogether torpid, as Celia.

The production wasn't altogether wonderful. For me, they didn't get across the idea of the Forest of Arden with a couple of Astroturf verges and an unrealistic grassy knoll. But what was more confusing was the casting for the deposed Duke. Because they'd cast a black man.

Now, I honestly have no problem with there being a black Duke. Personally, I think that's a little bit beautiful, a little bit of ebony and ivory living together in perfect harmony. But what threw me was that Duke was black and the actress cast as his daughter, Helen McRory, was not black. Not even a little bit.

I'm pleased to say this made me question my prejudices and preconceptions. It's a weird thing. I could accept an actor as her father if he was white. I would have been able to make the leap if he had been ginger, or if he had looked nothing like her. I would even have been able to make the leap if he had been not quite old enough to be her father. But the fact that the Duke was a big, bald, black chap and Helen McRory was clearly the wrong colour to be his daughter threw me a little bit.

I don't know why. I mean, with these things there is a convention that they will clue the audience in on the fact of characters being related by making them look similar, either through adroit casting or the use of wigs. But this was, for me, pushing in entirely the different direction. It made it harder for me to believe that she was the Duke's daughter, it made me expect some revelation about her being adopted.

Anyway that was a bit of a detour about nothing remotely relevant.

The point I was taking the roundabout route towards making is the character of Jaques. Now, Jaques is a brilliant character. He's a misanthrope, basically. A pessimist, a miserable bastard. He's depressed and has that kind of stark don't-give-a-shit honesty and insight that you get when you're depressed.

He has this big speech about 'All the world's a stage'. It rather comes out of nowhere, to be honest, as though Shakespeare had this really good stand-up routine over from something else he'd written and he needed to stick it somewhere. As REDACTED would say, it's apropos of f*ck all. Oh yes, there is a lead-in with the Duke's lines about 'this wide and universal theatre' but even so it's a clear shoehorn.

Even within the play, I'm not sure whether it is supposed to be Jaques' speech. He sort-of claims it was something told to him by a fool he met in the forest (who we later learn was the fool, Touchstone). It happens again later on in Act 4 where Jaques hits a rich seam of extended simile with his speech of 'different types of melancholy'. And there's another scene where Rosalind and Orlando play banter ping-pong about the speed at which time seems to travel. They’re almost observational monologues like Pam Ayres used to do on Nationwide.

But Jaques is otherwise quite a curt fellow, happy just to make sarcastic observations from the wings, so his big speech is a bit 'out'. So, anyway, there is this big speech... and it struck me, that I've always missed the point of it.

Because, as an extended metaphor, it's rubbish. It doesn't work at all. 'All the world's a stage'... and in the first act the man is an infant, 'mewling and puking in the nurse's arms'. Now, you don't usually get that sort of thing on a stage, mewling yes, puking, very even in Fringe productions. And even the idea of seven ages of man, one act per age, doesn't fit, because plays don't normally have seven acts.

So the point of this speech is not that it is a wonderful poetic conceit that can run and run, or a profound use of simile - it's that Jaques is a depressed bastard. He is going through the different stages of man and saying how crap they are. In each stage, men are either incontinent, whining, woeful, jealous, indolent, pathetic or incontinent again. He's going, these are the seven ages of man, and they're all shit.

Basically, he's Marvin the Paranoid Android. It's 'Life? Don't talk to me about life.'

As I was saying earlier, he has the realistic, fatalistic view of the depressed. If anything, though, Jaques characterisation is like Marvin - whilst we are sympathising with the fatalist, we are also laughing at them for having such an extreme negative reaction to absolutely everything that they become absurd. Kind of like Morrissey’s lyrics, they’re so relentlessly miserable and self-important that they become hilarious.

But actors think it's a great speech, they can hardly wait to bound about the stage, orating, arms-outstretched. In the production I saw, Jaques was played by Reece Shearsmith, and he didn't fall into that trap. Instead he played Jaques as a sort of indignant middle-manager in an accountancy firm, and his 'All the world's a stage' speech came across as a rather piqued and fretful outburst, with him strutting back and forth as though giving a seminar on outsourcing practices at Harpenden.

Jack Dee, he'd be a good Jaques. Or at least, to play Jaques well, the actor should approach it as though they’re doing Jack Dee's stand-up routine. The seven ages of man should be deadpan, with a sort of sarcastic resignation. Geoffrey Palmer would be good too.

Enough of that. Once again, in this play, we get allusions to cuckolds wearing horns. What is it with this? I just don't get why men would wear horns if their wife has shagged someone else. Suddenly the gap between now and the 16th century seems very wide indeed.

What the 'All the world's a stage' speech does illustrate, quite beautifully, is the extraordinary economy and density of meaning in the dialogue. I suppose it's in comparison to the rambling, unfocussed Wives but this play does feel unusually economic and precise.

I should also add that this play is funny. I'm in the process of compiling a ranking of Shakespeare plays, and As You Like It figures much more highly than I had expected, because, despite all its shortcomings, it has some of the funniest, genuine laugh-out-loud moments in all his comedies. Most of these scenes revolve around the brilliant comic creations of Touchstone and Jaques or are based around someone chatting up someone of the wrong gender... but in terms of working through the various comic iterations of each set-up, they are flawless. My favourite stuff is probably the whole business with Phoebe and Rosalind as Ganymede, oh, and Jaques and Audrey, oh and Orlando and Rosalind as Ganymede... and but the best bit is Touchstone's summing up at the end. I'll quote it later on.

Now for the story: the plotting is a little muddly, I'm afraid, and lacks the symmetrical neatness of the best comedies. The main clumsiness, for me, is the plot with the evil Duke Frederick, which is bigged-up as something important in the first two acts, and then falls, flapping, onto its face. The last we see of the Duke he is ordering his soldiers to search the forest and kill all the rebels. And then we hear nothing of him again, until a messenger runs on in the final five minutes and says 'Oh, you know that Duke Frederick? He was on his way here when he bumped into a monk and was converted from villainy. Now he doesn't want you all dead, in fact he wants to restore the dukedom to its rightful owner.'

And I'm like Hello? I'm like What? What monk? You never mentioned a monk! Where was the set-up, did I miss it? And, I'm sorry, but that's such a cop out, having the duke spontaneously decide to give up machinating. What I like to call a 'Duke's ex-machinator' ending.

Come on, that wasn't THAT bad. Alright, so it was.

This isn't the only moment of awkwardness. There's the business with Jaques talking about a 'fool' he has met - it's later revealed that this fool was Touchstone, but for a while there I wasn't sure whether he was talking about Orlando or Adam, or some other fool altogether. Another example of what feels like a 'missing scene' is Oliver's arrival in the forest in Act 4 where he turns up with a message to Rosalind from Orlando explaining why Orlando can't make it to their date.

Now, the last we saw of Oliver he had been sent into the forest to kill his brother Orlando. He was evil Oliver, in league with the evil Duke, so this is a bit of a jolt. Apparently what happened was that Oliver was having a nap in the woods, when he woke up to discover he was being savaged by a man-eating lion (as you do, in the woods) only for Orlando (who was on his way to his date with Rosalind, in plenty of time) to leap to the rescue with a single bound (and a sword) to save his life. Orlando then led Oliver to meet the exiled Duke and Orlando vowed to reconcile with his brother and join with the rebels, and then to carry a message from the (very mildly) grazed Orlando to Rosalind... it's quite a lot to take in all at once. I know it would have been impractical to have had a man-eating lion on stage, but we could have had the scene with Orlando and Oliver meeting the exiled Duke. It's this omission and then the retrospective papering-over exposition, and the inclusion of a lion almost as an excuse for us not to see it; it feels like the writer hadn't quite solved a problem with the plotting.

So, two, maybe three crucial scenes are not in the play, but instead are related third-personly. Then again, in the case of Oliver's message, where the whole thing is an elaborate and needlessly convoluted excuse for failing to turn up for a date ('I would've come, but I had to save my brother from being eaten by a lion.') it could be rather funny if delivered in a suitably breathless and earnest tone. Yes, on second thoughts, I think it works; it's a bit of bad plotting, structurally, but which turns out to an opportunity for a humorous surprise.

Okay. Synopsis time. And the BBC production.

The BBC production is unusual, in that it is all location. Which on the one hand makes it look prettier than usual. But the problem is the sound. Whenever an actor is some distance from the camera, or facing away, their dialogue is mumfle mumfle mumfle mumfle. This also, for me, creates a scale problem, as the performances are pitched at 'theatre' level. I'm talking lots of arm-waving, essentially.

The play opens with Orlando, a young chap, who has been cut out of any inheritance by his older brother, Oliver. (They are both sons of the late Sir Rowland). In order to get some cash, Orlando agrees to try his luck in a fighting competition.

(Unfortunately, sound-wise, this scene is probably the worst in the whole production. It does improve. But subtitles are recommended.)

Oliver then meets with Charles, the prize-winning wrestler that Orlando will be facing. This scene is quite important, as Charles relates the whole back-story. They are in the court of Duke Frederick, who has usurped his brother and exiled him to the local forest, Arden. However, the exiled Duke's daughter, Rosalind, was allowed to stay, as a playmate for Duke Frederick's daughter, Celia.

(Unfortunately, sound-wise, all of this exposition has been given to DAVE PROWSE and is delivered in a thick, incomprehensible West Country brogue. Incomprehensible, that is, to everyone apart from Nick Walters. Don't turn off those subtitles yet!)

Celia and Rosalind have been invited to watch the fighting competition between Orlando and Charles where, surprisingly, Orlando wins. Rosalind falls in love with him and gives him a pearl necklace. Orlando falls in love with her and promises to return the favour first chance he gets.

However, Duke Frederick is less than happy about Orlando, what with him being the son of a friend of the exiled duke's, so he banishes Orlando from the kingdom. So off Orlando f*cks, with his wrinkly retainer Adam in tow. Adam is kind of like Clive Dunn in Dad's Army; an old man who gets rather excitable and then has to have a bit of a rest afterwards.

The evil Duke Frederick - boo! - also then decides to banish Rosalind from the court as well (for no adequately explored reason, except a general accusation of 'treachery'). Rosalind then leaves with her servant, the clown Touchstone, and Celia decides to accompany her. Of course, in order not to arouse suspicion, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy ('Ganymede') and Celia adopts the nom de plume  'Aliena'.

The evil Duke is pissed off that his daughter has done a bunk, and orders Oliver to seek, locate and destroy the rebel base.

So they all head off to the forest of Arden, where the exiled Duke has formed a merry band with various other exiles. Just like Robin Hood, except in a non-copyright-infringing sense. (This play was a cash-in during a period of Hood-mania). The best of the exiled Duke's friends is Jaques, a miserable sod, who - rather like Morrissey, again - is particularly upset by the thought of cruelty to animals.

The time-scales of this play are rather all over the place - time seems to progress much more quickly in the forest, like Narnia, because months seem to pass in the forest in the time it takes for the evil Duke to send for Oliver. But this is sticking-plastered with a bit of banter about how time travels at different speeds for different people...

Arriving in Arden, Rosalind and Celia are a bit tired and hungry. 'I pray you to bear with me', says Celia. Referring to Rosalind, Touchstone replies, 'I should bear no cross if I did bear you, for I think you have no money in your purse.' i.e. you have no winky in your pants.

Bumping into a local yokel, Rosalind and Celia buy the farm. I don't mean they get killed, I mean they literally buy a farm, and decide to spend their rest of their lives in rustic idyll, hoeing and growing radishes and so on.

Orlando and Adam, meanwhile, happen upon the exiled Duke and his merry band. There is much singing. In fact, there’s too much singing. I don't necessarily mind there being songs in a play, but after a while all the heigh-ho heigh-nonny-no's really start to grind you down.

Anyway, Orlando joins up with the exiled merry men (so merry, in fact, they can barely stop f*cking singing. SHUT UP!) and devotes himself to writing love letters to Rosalind, which he then sticks up in all the trees in the forest, carving her name into all the trunks.

Rosalind and Celia discover some of these notes. They are full of embarrassing adolescent poetry as Orlando seeks endless rhymes, near-rhymes and nowhere-near rhymes for 'Rosalind'. Touchstone takes the piss.

The plotting here is a bit random, as people wander about the woods of Arden bumping into each other. Orlando bumps into Rosalind and Celia and thinking Rosalind is a boy (or does he?) asks for advice on what to do about his girlfriend trouble. Rosalind 'tests' Orlando's love first by trying to persuade him that he is better off without a girlfriend, and by giving him lessons on what he should do to chat up Rosalind when he finally meets her. Rosalind does this through a series of role-play exercises, where Orlando will play Orlando, and she will be Rosalind.

So Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind. Simple, eh?

Meanwhile Touchstone has bumped into a buxom wench in the woods, Audrey. Audrey is a rather stupid bumpkin, but she has absolutely massive norks and Touchstone thinks she might be a go-er in the sack. He chats her up.

Audrey: 'Well, oi am not fair, and therefore I pray the gods make me honest.'

Touchstone: 'Truly, and to cast away honesty upon a foul slut were to put good meat into an unclean dish.'

Audrey: 'I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul.'

Touchstone: 'Well, praised be the gods for thy foulness - sluttishness may come hereafter.'

So, basically Touchstone wins her over by being incredibly crude. This is also a sort-of parody of the earlier Rosalind-Orlando flirtation, where they discuss whether beauty and sincerity are mutually exclusive in girls, and given the choice, which would you prefer?

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the woods are Phoebe and Silvius. Silvius is a rather decent, well-meaning if unworldly chap, who is devotedly in love with Phoebe and is constantly praising her. Phoebe, however, is an arrogant cow, constantly floating along in an impermeable over-inflated bubble of her own self-importance. She’s pretty horrible to Silvius, constantly undermining him and putting him down, but Silvius puts up with it, because he worships her so much. There's something oddly familiar about this relationship, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

They bump into Rosalind (as 'Ganymede') and Rosalind admonishes Phoebe for her behaviour towards Silvius. 'Who might be your mother, that you insult, exult and all at once, over the wretched? What though you have no beauty (as, by my faith, I see no more in you than without a candle may go dark to bed)'. i.e. take a look at yourself, sister, you ain't all that hot, you should be grateful for what you can get.

But - what larks! - Phoebe falls in love with 'Ganymede' and Rosalind has to run away before she gets lezzed-up.

Phoebe is played by Victoria Plucknett. Pretty girl. Apparently she's now a regular on Pobol Y Lovely Boyo, the Welsh soap.

Act IV (for that is where we are now up to) is distinguished by its almost entire lack of incident, except Oliver turning up with a note (see earlier). Now, I've read criticisms of this play because Act IV has almost bugger-all happening in it, but I don't think it is a problem, because whilst it is not moving things forward in terms of plot, it is having a lot of fun playing with the various comic set-ups, as Rosalind teases Orlando, and then Silvius turns up with a love letter for Rosalind from Phoebe (a letter which makes it clear that Phoebe wants to dump poor Silvius, the chump!). It's all beautiful, flirty, romantic silliness, and you almost don't want the plot to move forward because it is having so much fun where it is.

I said 'almost'.

In Act III Touchstone arranged for a vicar to marry him to Audrey. Except he didn't get a proper vicar, he got a local soak, on the understanding that if they weren’t married 'properly' he could have his wicked way with her for a fortnight and then dump her when he was bored with her mammary charms. Very naughty but rather funny. This fell through, though, so in Act V Audrey is now nagging Touchstone about when they will get married, and Touchstone has already become hen-pecked and down-trod. However, when a rival for Audrey's affections turns up - a young feckless idiot called William - Touchstone gives him his marching orders, in no uncertain terms:

'Therefore, you - clown! - abandon - that is, in the vulgar, 'leave' - the society - which, in the boorish, is 'company' - of this female - which, in the common, is 'woman'; which, together, is 'abandon the society of this female', or - clown! - thou perishest!'

Elsewhere in the woods, we learn that Celia has fallen in love with Oliver (when he turned up to explain why Orlando couldn't make his date with 'Ganymede' aka Rosalind on account of the attack by a lion, remember!). The exiled Duke organises a big wedding in the woods.

Rosalind makes a deal with Phoebe (the egomaniacal girl who wants to get frisky with her lady-fashion, if you recall). She will meet Phoebe at the wedding ceremony. If Phoebe then refuses to marry 'Ganymede', she must promise to marry poor sap Silvius instead. Phoebe readily agrees. As does Silvius. As does love-addled Orlando, as well for no particular reason except for comic effect.

You know what comes next. Big wedding in the woods, presided over by the exiled. Rosalind pops off behind a tree and removes her 'Ganymede' disguise and returns in her sexy lady wedding togs.

Upon Rosalind's return, with her lady-charms in plain view, Phoebe goes 'oh giddy Christ in a basket I've been chatting up a woman!' and therefore has to marry Silvius, who can't quite believe his luck - at last, he’s going to get to manhandle Phoebe's pert dumplings! And, as Phoebe has also been rather humiliated, this puts her in her place and pricks her bubble of self-importance.

So all that is left to do is for the four couples to be married - Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, Phoebe and Silvius, Audrey and Touchstone. Jaques gives a deadpan appraisal of the each couple's chances:

Re: Orlando & Rosalind - "You, to a love that your true faith doth merit"
Re: Oliver & Celia - "You, to your land, and love, and great allies"
Re: Silvius & Phoebe - "You, to a long and well-deserved bed"

i.e. get in there, Silvius, my son, she's all yours!

And re: Touchstone & Audrey - "And you to wrangling; for thy loving voyage is but for two months victualled"

i.e. I wish you two happy months of arguing before the inevitable acrimonious split.

All that's left is for us to hear about the evil Duke turning over a new leaf and returning the court to his brother (oh, don't you just love happy endings), and it's down to Rosalind to epilogue the play - basically wishing all the couples in the audience a good post-performance shag. 'Girls - you've had a good night out, now return the favour. Boys - keep on giving your girls good nights out at the theatre and you can't go wrong. And, if I may, now I'd like to take you all backstage with me and shag you.'

Next up:  Henry V

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that in 2006 you failed to mention Mirren killing it as Rosalind. Oddly enough at about the same time I wrote a rave for The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and entirely failed to include any mention of the Ood. It oscillates with Much Ado and Midsummer but As You Like It's probably my favourite of the comedies. It's the one play I saw at the Globe (the very production which is out on dvd) and loved it, even if I nipped to the toilet in the middle and somehow managed to miss All The World's Stage. The Branagh's good too and has a really useful way of working through the metafiction, especially in the final monologue.

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