As You Like It at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Randy Hughson as Corin and Ben Carlson as Touchstone

Next year the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will be putting on Twelfth Night, which is practically our favorite Shakespeare play. But we’re going to skip it. Till further notice, we’re not paying to see Shakespeare plays directed by Des McAnuff. There will be other shows at Stratford in 2011.

Mr. McAnuff’s As You Like It has a lot in common with his Romeo and Juliet in 2008 (see this post) and his Macbeth in 2009 (see this post): actors who don’t seem to understand their lines, speeches that can’t be heard, a jarringly uneven tone, confusing visual images, and “modern” settings that don’t work. Like most mediocre Shakespeare productions, it has all too many “dead zones” – long minutes in which the actors seem merely to be reciting, rather than acting, their lines, causing the audience to glaze over, not really understanding what’s being said.

The main culprits at our show were Paul Nolan (Orlando), Andrea Runge (Rosalind), and, to our surprise, Brent Carver (Jacques). Two years ago, Mr. McAnuff made the mistake of casting a young musical theater performer with no classical acting chops as Juliet (see this post.) He did it again this year. Mr. Nolan was superb in 2009 in West Side Story, see this post), but here, as Orlando, unaided by a microphone, he rushed uncomprehendingly through his lines, stood woodenly around the stage, and failed to project his voice.

Andrea Runge, as Rosalind, was better heard, but her volume came at the price of expression. Ms. Runge’s method of delivering a given line of Shakespeare is to pick out one syllable at random and to attack it. Each of her phrases had exactly the same dynamic shape; her voice fell off at the end of each phrase in exactly the same way.

Brent Carver, surrealistically, as Jacques

We even had trouble hearing the experienced and capable Brent Carver, as Jacques (in this show pronounced “JACK-wes,” which we didn’t understand). Mr. Carver delivered his lines with inexplicable stops and starts, and his “All the world’s a stage” speech tailed off so dramatically that we simply didn’t hear what he said about the last of the seven ages of man:

. . . second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

At our performance, the audience sat dully on its hands through much of the first part of this comedy, showing signs of life only when Ben Carlson (as the jester Touchstone) and Lucy Peacock (as Audrey, the ignorant, goat-tending object of his lust) came on stage. I had envisioned a clownish, fumbling Touchstone; Mr. Carlson’s cynical, urbane master of wordplay was a delight. Mr. Carlson, Ms. Peacock, and Brian Tree (as Adam) accounted for nearly all the entertainment value in this show. We regret the necessity of missing Mr. Carlson as Feste in next year’s Twelfth Night.

It’s a elementary responsibility of a director to ensure that his actors are heard. It’s also his job, we’d think, to ensure that a play strikes a consistent tone.  We grant, as Mr. McAnuff observes in the program notes for this show, that the first half of As You Like It, which features threats against the lives of Orlando and Rosalind, is darker than the second half. But Mr. McAnuff evidently felt that it needed to be much darker still. Ignoring both the text and the spirit of the play, he gratuitously injected two deaths (including a murder) into its first hour of this comedy.

The first death left us genuinely puzzled. At the end of Act II of the play (as the playwright wrote it), Orlando is welcomed to Arden by Duke Senior and his band of merry men, but insists that he cannot eat or rest until his exhausted old servant Adam (an endearing Brian Tree) gets some nourishment. Orlando carries his “venerable burden” in, they feed him, and after a song (“Blow, blow, thou winter wind”), Duke Senior welcomes the revived old man: “Good old man/Thou art right welcome as thy master is. Support him by the arm.”

But in this show, Mr. McAnuff has Adam expire during the song; they wrap up his corpse and carry him off. The playwright created the Forest of Arden as a place of refuge, reconciliation, and restoration. Why shouldn’t Arden have been a place of recovery and rest for Adam, as the playwright specified?

Minutes later, at the beginning of Act III, when the black-hearted Duke Frederick demands that Oliver track down his brother Orlando and bring him back dead or alive, Mr. McAnuff has the Duke show Oliver that he means business by pulling a gun and casually shooting one of his courtiers. Needless to say, the play’s text provides no warrant for this jarring bit of stage business. Why did Mr. McAnuff feel compelled to make Duke Frederick appear even more villainous than he already was — not merely a bully and an egoist, but a sociopath to boot? The stunt serves only to shock. Perhaps, in directing this scene, Mr. McAnuff was still trapped in the world of Macbeth, which he directed a year ago, in which random, paranoid murders were par for the course. Perhaps he was thinking about King Lear, in which the blinding of Gloucester and other scenes of brutal violence are brilliantly juxtaposed with scenes of tenderness and comic relief. But As You Like It is not that sort of play.

And Mr. McAnuff’s perverse decision to militarize this comedy ruined Emsworth’s favorite speech from As You Like It, Duke Senior’s ode to the pastoral life, which begins,

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp?

Act II, Scene I. No doubt there are many ways to stage this scene; we had imagined Duke Senior and his brothers in exile sitting around a roaring campfire to keep off the chill autumn air, toasting one another with hijacked ale, singing songs, and telling bawdy jokes and stories. But Mr. McAnuff had Tom Rooney, as Duke Senior, shout out his lines, not to friends in a close, convivial circle, but to half a dozen armed comrades scattered among the audience in the large Festival Theater in the posture of lookouts and sharpshooters. Not surprisingly, the effect of the speech was lost.  Mr. Rooney was delivering his toast to friends who were barely within earshot, off in six different directions.

We found even more objectionable the image of Arden as an armed, fearful camp of rebels. That’s the opposite of the playwright’s image. The men in the forest are happy and content; Duke Senior observes complacently to his friends, “Are not these woods/More free from peril than the envious court?”, and a few scenes later, when Orlando blunders into the camp with his sword drawn (Act II, Scene 7), ready to fight for food, he is welcomed with a joke from Jacques, a “welcome to our table,” and a rebuke from Duke Senior for coming into their peaceful place with a show of force.

A Magritte-like set

Then there was Mr. McAnuff’s head-scratching decision to “set” this Shakespeare comedy in the 1920s, based on his observation (in the program) that communism, anarchism and fascism were all repressive movements opposed to modern art. To be fair, we rather enjoyed the colorful, surrealistic images from which the set and the props were constructed. What we didn’t fathom was the director’s apparently sincere belief that there was some meaningful connection between the pre-modern, pre-ideological world of As You Like It and the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, when fascism and communism challenged the humanism of the Renaissance and the Reformation. What had these worlds to do with one another?

We understand that every Shakespeare director feels driven to do “something new” with a familiar play. (We understand, even if we don’t like it.)  But they shouldn’t deceive themselves into thinking that “setting” a Shakespeare play in fascist pre-World War II Europe — what a stale, over-used concept, especially at Stratford! — will actually help audiences understand the play better.

It won’t.  As the wife of our bosom commented as we were driving away from Stratford, if this sort of approach confounds adults who are familiar with Shakespeare, how much more must it baffle children and youths who are experiencing Shakespeare for the first time?


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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Ouch! But sadly true about the young actors at Stratford. And that’s exactly the impression I’ve gotten all too often: that thy young actors in McAnuff-directed plays really DON’T get their own lines. Sometimes hearing the actors is hardly better than reading the words on the printed page: you may hear the actors speak the words (sometimes not, when they don’t project), but you still have to imagine the inflections of speech, the facial expressions, the body language that would truly convey the meaning. McAnuff seems to think that 20th-century settings and music will “help” an audience understand the lines. He’s wrong; the way the young actors deliver the lines is really the problem.

  2. I have to agree. I feel like there was so much music and frippery and extraneous crap in the production that Des McAnuff must think we’re all too stupid to get it – or his actors are too stupid to perform it. I never really am terribly impressed by the young actors at Stratford, but they do seem to be getting more and more raw these days – and also seem to have no idea what they are saying on a level beyond the basic plot. “This is the speech where I basically say I like him,” is about as clear as we get. I don’t think I can sit through another one of these.

  3. It’s true — just looking at the storyline, there’s no reason why good old Adam shouldn’t be around for Orlando’s wedding. I add it to the long list of anomalies in Shakespeare’s plays for which there’s just no explanation, period. What’s even more aggravating to me than the disappearing characters like Adam and Lear’s Fool are the new characters who suddenly materialize at the end of plays — like Titinius, who doesn’t appear in Julius Caesar till Act V, scene II but is a major figure from then on. You sit there puzzled, trying to figure out why you don’t remember him from earlier in the play.

  4. Thanks for getting back to me. I’m not suggesting that just because Adam isn’t seen or heard from again that he should die. It just seems to me that the relationship he had with Adam at the beginning doesn’t correlate with his absence at the wedding. I just find that part particularly interesting.
    I’ve really appreciated your comments on the productions during the season.

  5. Aaron:

    Believe me, I had every intention of having a good time at this show. Despite the issues I’d had with McAnuff’s direction of other Shakespeare plays, I had reasonably high expectations, having seen favorable things from the Toronto press reviewers. I don’t know Mr. McAnuff, have nothing against him, have applauded most of his decisions as Artistic Director, consider him a remarkable talent, and don’t doubt his devotion to Shakespeare. And As You Like It is a play I like; I read and reread it over the course of the summer.

    But we simply didn’t find this show entertaining (except, as mentioned, for the scenes with Adam, Touchstone, and Audrey). At the first intermission, the wife and I looked at each other and said, nearly in unison, “we’re not enjoying this.” And we weren’t. I thought the acting from the two young leads was subpar and still think so. That was the crusher – I’m usually ready to overlook other issues if the main performances are good — although in this case, it seemed to me that the director’s decision to exaggerate the dark elements of the play hurt the show nearly as much as the poor acting. Having Duke Senior’s cohorts scattered off as armed watchmen made the wonderful “sermons from stones” speech about the pastoral life (which I discuss in my review) take on an ironical tone, as if we were meant to understand that the Duke were saying just the opposite of what he was feeling. But surely there’s no more sincere speech in all of Shakespeare than Duke Senior’s ode to Arden.

    If other people did enjoy this As You Like It, that’s great. It happened that the three other couples at the B & B we stayed at (all strangers to us) had also just seen As You Like It and found it as disappointing as we did, and for pretty much the same reasons.

    I might have let the unexpected death of Adam go unremarked if it hadn’t seemed part of an ill-advised overall plan to make Arden a darker place. Of course, a number of Shakespeare plays have characters who disappear without explanation mid-play, never to return – I think especially of Lear’s Fool. It can’t always mean that the character died. It’s more likely to mean, as was probably the case with Lear’s Fool, nothing more than that the actor playing the Fool had to play another character later in the play. Tying up loose ends was never a priority for Shakespeare.


  6. I really think that it’s unfortunate that you didn’t enjoy this production. I do appreciate that you present clear reasons for your disliking of the show, to often people just say the show was terrible (if they don’t like it) and leave it at that.
    However, I do have to remark that this the most scathing review of this production I’ve read all season. It’s a production that has been well received and for many of the reasons you disliked the show. The reason for my commenting on this particular post is the final comment you made, “if this sort of approach confounds adult who are familiar with Shakespeare, how much more must it baffle children and youths who are experiencing Shakespeare for the first time?” Children and first timers are enjoying this production and telling us that they finally understand As You Like It. I have heard this from many teachers that have brought their class to see the production, and I brought my 8 year old nephew to this production and his comment afterward was, “That was awesome”. Now I know my nephew didn’t understand all the so ins and outs but he knew what the show was about when I asked him.
    This is getting longer than I expected but I wanted to touch on the issue of Adam’s death. This isn’t the first time a director chose to have Adam die at this point and I would suggest it’s supported by the text because Adam doesn’t appear in the show after that particular scene. If he were restored in the forest would he not have been present at the wedding at the end of the play given his relationship with Orlando?
    Just some comments I thought I would share. Thank you again for posting and I look forward to a response.

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