As You Like It is a difficult play for a director to ruin completely, but Polly Findlay comes very close. Her new production in the Olivier Theatre leaves no space for the actors, who are 'cabin'd, cribbed, confined' throughout by a misconceived and overpowering set design by Lizzie Clachan.
The theatrical maxim 'don't bump into the furniture' gets a whole new meaning in this National Theatre production, as the actors pick their way through and around a spectacular vertical installation of suspended desks and chairs that is supposed to stand for the Forest of Arden. Their acting space is reduced to a narrow strip at the front of the stage.
I've complained before about productions at the NT and the RSC where director and designer create overpowering installations as stage sets which would be better suited to Tate Modern. Findlay's production at the National of Antigone in 2012 was a prime example, and this time around the action and the characters are even more cramped by the concept.
The play opens, like Antigone did, in an office. It's a strange environment where the employees, wearing bright coloured jackets like City traders, sit at desks handling paper folders and Post-It notes. Each desk has a small bonsai tree, but in this controlled dystopia, where a bell signals the end of the shift, there is no individual expression. Orlando and his elderly sidekick Adam, dressed in overalls, enter the empty office to water the plants. And Orlando's wrestling bout with Charles takes place on the office floor, with the staff shouting and cheering.
All of which has nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare's play. I have no objection to highly conceptual updates of Shakespeare, such as Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice, set in a Las Vegas casino. But the difference between Goold and Findlay is that the former director uses the wacky setting to set the actors free and generate some memorable performances -- such as Susannah Fielding's blonde bombshell Portia. In this As You Like It, one feels that the set is supposed to be the star and the actors are secondary. At times I was left wondering how carefully the director had thought about the text.
The wrestling bout between Orlando and Charles is a dramatic device. It is of no interest in itself, and its sole function is to show the transformational moment of Rosalind and Orlando falling in love. The focus of the scene has to be on the ringside anguish of the spectators Rosalind and Celia, one of them going suddenly weak at the knees and the other reacting with a mixture of sympathy and alarm. When played well, it's very funny. And it has to be primarily Rosalind's scene.
Unfortunately Findlay seems oblivious to the meaning of the scene. She places the emphasis on the wrestling itself, with a skinny Orlando facing a 20-stone heavyweight dressed in a Superman suit. Rosalind and Celia are just faces in the big crowd of cheering office workers and their reactions barely register.
There are plenty of other scenes in the play that are among the best that Shakespeare wrote, exploring the sexual ambiguity of the Rosalind-Orlando flirtation in the forest, but in this production they fall flat. The directorial focus on concept and set ignores the richness and subtlety of the text, and even the comic scenes with Audrey, Phebe and William fail to raise more than a smile. There's a nice moment when human sheep wearing Arran sweaters invade the stage on all fours, but it seems totally out of place in the grim humourless aesthetic of this production.
Amid the wreckage a few performances stand out. Patsy Ferran plays Celia with great comic brio, and in a better production she would be very funny indeed. Shakespearean veteran Patrick Godfrey is excellent as the aged Adam, and Paul Chahidi gives a very distinctive performance as Jaques.
Rosalie Craig is always clear and audible as Rosalind, but unlike Michelle Terry in the Globe production a few months ago, she gives no sense of the fragility and uncertainty that the character requires. She looks entirely comfortable in her masculine disguise and there's no feeling that this is a high wire act that could go wrong at any moment. Beneath Rosalind's self-assured and bossy treatment of Orlando, there is a richly comic perpetual improvisation which Craig does not convey.
I saw this play in an early preview. It is possible that some of the flaws in the production, particularly the lack of comic flair, will become less evident as it goes forward. But I fear that the director and designer between them have created a kind of Alcatraz from which the actors will struggle to escape.