The culture: ‘Measure for Measure’, Young Vic; ‘As You Like It’, National Theatre; ‘Henry V’, Barbican
The cheap seats: restricted side view at the Young Vic (a nice, safe distance from all those sex dolls), £5 central front row seats at the National so I could enjoy a particularly beautiful Orlando, £5 RSC Key tickets at the Barbican – my sweet spot seat (M22, Stalls).
The thing with playing with the canon is that it can explode – either with a damp squib or brilliant pyrotechnics. Watching three recent London productions of Shakespeare, I’ve had very different experiences. If my trips to productions of Young Vic, the National Theatre and the Barbican were a game of Snog, Marry, Avoid, I would steer clear of Measure for Measure, kiss As You Like It while grinning in a brightly coloured, frilly underskirt surrounded by origami flowers, and I’d marry dear, dependable Henry V because the RSC’s production would be the kind of amiable husband who would never cheat or forget to put the bins out, but would tell a dirty joke every now and then just so you didn’t entirely regret plumping for predictable, comfortable, suburban matrimony.
Sticking to what they do best, the good ship RSC and captain Greg Doran create a clear Henry V. Alex Hassell, who was the perfect Hal, doesn’t quite seem to have settled or grown into the role, even after a full run in Stratford, but the ensemble, as ever, is brilliant. A particular highlight is Robert Gilbert as pouting court poser the Dauphin of France. Henry V is the RSC at its finest doing what it does best – dressing up in lots of leather, doing a bit of sword fighting and speaking verse exceptionally well. It was very entertaining but not a single patch of ground was broken.
But then super modern doesn’t always work either, as the Young Vic’s Measure for Measure (dir. Joe Hill-Gibbins) can testify. Maybe they sent a hapless production assistant to Ann Summers as a joke. The mountain of blow up sex dolls is certainly funny to start with, but soon the laughter wears thin. The actors are literally wading through pink plastic, pushing genitals aside to do their monologues and it suddenly seems a bit grotesque.
Then there’s the filming. The prison scenes are like a weird sex dungeon episode of a dodgy MTV series filmed on shaky handheld cameras and projected onto the wooden board at the back of the set. Romola Garai’s Isabella is strong – all angry shouting, eloquence and stubborn righteousness where poor Mariah Gale was restricted to wide, wet eyes and disbelief over at the Globe this summer. The ending’s good too and making the Duke a bit mad is a really clever way of dealing with the play’s greatest problem. As a heavily cut text running for two hours with no interval it’s underdeveloped and rushed but at least clear and concise in its vision. There is, however, no escaping the gimmicks, especially since at least a hundred of them are slap bang in the centre of the stage with gaping mouths. It’s not sexy or shocking, just a little bit awkward, and it adds little to nothing to the play.
Perhaps, then, the best answer to the question To Modernise or Not To Modernise? is just to sidestep it and make a production timeless. Polly Findlay’s As You Like It at the National’s Olivier Theatre begins in a modern setting. The Duke’s court is an office with whirring technology smartly dressed workers. Neatly clipped bonsai trees under lamps and forest desktop screensavers seem to replace the forest of Arden and it looks like a clever metaphor for how we’ve forgotten nature in a sea of capitalism. Someone from the house of Dubois comes in to trim the bonsai, sticking out like a sore thumb in the chic black office with his rustic chest of tools. It turns out to be wholesome Orlando (Joe Bannister), come to rescue fair Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) from the corporate court.
The scene change is nothing short of spectacular and from this point the play is radical Shakespeare. When the tables and chair fly up and the office set wheels back I expected a lush green forest. Instead, we’re given a post-apocalyptic scene with a smashed tarmac floor. Everyone wears camo colours and chunky knitwear, shivering and huddling for warmth, occasionally bursting into folk song to boost morale. Polly Findlay’s “Forest” of Arden can be cruel or kind and the spooky gothic feathered spirits perched on suspended office furniture chirp like sparrows or squark like ravens.
The dangling desks, covered in Post-It love notes by Orlando, are a bit odd until you embrace them and appreciate them as a kind of dark cubist set. The lines are often anachronistic but the performances are strong, particularly Bannister’s Orlando and Patsy Ferran’s show-stealing Celia, not usually a character who gets to shine but played for all she’s worth and more by Ferran, with her gift for comedy, timing, and kooky facial expressions. The ending is very ‘Wizard of Oz’ but it’s so fun and beautiful that it’s impossible not to get totally swept up in it all – just as you should by a good Shakespeare comedy.
These three London productions have shown me just how picky I am about my Shakespeare productions.Essentially, it’s been like a theatre-based rewrite of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’. The Young Vic’s Measure for Measure was too hot and left me cold. The RSC’s Henry V was good (and a great end to the King and Country Cycle I’ve enjoyed over the past few years) but too conventional for my taste. Polly Findlay’s dynamic As You Like It at the National Theatre, however, was just right, and just as I like it. More than this, these productions illustrate three approaches to staging canonical texts and prove that playing with Shakespeare can still create infinite variety.