As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Stephen Unwin
Starring Michael Feast, Phoebe Fox, Adrian Lukis, Georgia Maguire, Georgina Rich, David Sturzaker
The Rose Theatre, Kingston, until 26 March
I confess: I've never acted. The closest I have come to theatrical performance is a couple of ripe interjections at the Chipping Norton panto and some excruciating "drama workshops", one of which involved me giving a "sound bath" to a very senior (and equally nonplussed) French academic - I had to make funny noises while he lay on the floor. "Standing up for Shakespeare", as the RSC has it (or lying down, come to that), is not for those of us who value our dignity.
So, with what authority do I judge someone else's acting? As my mum always says, "If you can't do better yourself, you've no right to carp", although the veracity of this moral proclamation was undermined last time it surfaced: we were watching Strictly Come Dancing. What I'm nervously trying to say is that this As You Like It was marred by the most leaden acting I have seen on the professional stage for quite a while. At times, it was like watching an unironic Acorn Antiques.
Georgia Maguire (who played Phoebe) and Phoebe Fox (Celia) graduated from drama school last year. Phoebe is a prominent role; Celia a crucial one. What on earth Stephen Unwin thought he was doing casting two neophytes thus is anyone's guess. I'm sure, in time, both will prove to be great actors, but there is a compelling reason most Hamlets start out as spear-carriers. Georgina Rich's Rosalind had precious little to play against in her scenes with Celia, although, at points, her own perfunctory delivery trampled on the play's gossamer humour: "But is all this (Rosalind's nervous excitement) for your father?" asked Celia. Rich's Rosalind flatly responded, "No, some of it is for my child's father", her character's dextrous aptitude hardly registering with Celia and so even less with the audience. Speeches such as Celia's salacious banter about putting "a man in your belly" or Rosalind's surreal imagination - her love is as deep as "the Bay of Portugal" - were often articulated with a matter-of-factness that sounded like boredom. Playful, jocund, witty, it was not.
A contiguous casualty was the wooing between Rosalind and Orlando (David Sturzaker). Had one not already known that they fall in love at first sight, one could easily be forgiven here for not even noticing. Was Unwin after a more subtle articulation of attraction? Was the intention to avoid the fluttering, sighs and general cheesiness of romantic comedy? Perhaps, but the two of them appeared to converse as though waiting for a bus, which meant that Orlando's collapse, grasping his head in self-reproach for being tongue-tied, came out of nowhere.
The poverty of the acting was not relieved by a dour design (by Jonathan Fensom). Inexplicably set on a built-up platform (the Rose Theatre has a lovely low apron stage), a pile of mud, strewn with leaves, was surmounted by boughs that were facilely lowered on bits of rope to suggest Arden. Costumes were stylised Jacobean in muted tones. I've seen more imaginative designs at the local school's annual musical. Upstage was painted black as though the production couldn't decide whether it was to be played on location or in a studio box. In either case, the inevitable effect of such a minimal set was to accent the performances (which was particularly unfortunate here).
Michael Feast's multiple-personality-disordered Touchstone was a breath of fresh air. His manifold voices and manic expressions provided some variety to an otherwise bland Arden, and his horny pursuit of Audrey (Claire Prempeh) was lechery, pure and delightful: "wedlock would be nibbling" - which he rendered with a leery Sid Jamesian "nibblin'". Adrian Lukis' Jaques was also a shrewd performance, his lucid delivery of the seven ages of man punctuated at the end by his biting noisily into an Edenic apple just as Orlando entered, carrying the ailing Adam (Shango Baku). Paul Shelley was admirably Janus-faced as a malevolent Frederick and a bumbling and cheerfully sweet Senior.
In his programme note, Unwin writes that "Shakespeare's Forest of Arden is on the verge of disappearing". We can only hope that, before it finishes its run, Unwin's As You Like It manages to scrabble back up the verge.