Calder Hudson reviews
As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s more recognized comedies, and for good reason. With fraternal conflict, cross-dressing, changes-of-heart, and multiple marriages, it has all the elements of a successful Elizabethan caper; furthermore, some of its lines are among Shakespeare’s best. Despite these assets—and skilled performers to give them credence, for that matter—this semester’s production of As You Like It fell sadly short. Though it did improve as the performance progressed—largely through a second half immeasurably better than the first—the overall production lagged behind what could be (reasonably) desired.
Director Benji Bailey and Producer Adryon Kozel—the duo behind two earlier Shakespearean shows at St Andrews (Othello and Julius Caesar, namely, as well as a production of The Merchant of Venice at last year’s Fringe Festival)—are indisputably experienced in their respective roles. They had a capable cast backing them as well as musical accompaniment and a surprising number of lighting changes for the Barron. Somehow, despite all these good components, their end product felt disjointed and choppy—jittery and rushed at some points, yet laggardly or overlong at others. Few scenes were able to find the balance between these extremes, and while those scenes did show off the show’s considerable potential, they were too few in number to carry the full performance.
The first half of the production was shorter than the latter half; this proved fortunate, if only because the first half was far weaker. The first scene was a severe misstep which established several continuing problems within the performance. In retrospect it would have been better to cut out this opening entirely, even after considering its expositional necessity. The show’s male romantic lead, Orlando (Andrew Chalmers), spoke at such a speed that his words quickly became unintelligible, rendering the scene half-useless at best. While this was partially alleviated by his brotherly counterpart, Oliver (Ebe Bamgboye), the problems worsened when blocking was added to the mix. Even with Shakespeare—wherein naturalism can be more readily cast aside—no blocking, gestures, or other choreography should feel too cued. When Oliver and Orlando attempted to throttle one another, neither reacted to the others’ hands clenching around their neck, as purportedly happens when people are nearly strangled to death. Furthermore—in the first scene and beyond—characters would (quite visibly) remember to move or gesticulate once reaching a certain line, making many motions abrupt, discordant, and unpolished. Much of the show’s blocking ranged from somewhat unjustified to painfully tacked-on—particularly unfortunate insofar as the blocking was not faulty by any means, but was instead executed poorly and inorganically. This issue continued throughout, even unto the play’s final scene, where a (quite well-done and impressive) dance number drew out for just too long, so that even some of the characters onstage looked to be bored of it.
A brief point of clarity before discussing the show’s pacing: I think it’s safe to say that most audiences know, more or less, what they’re getting into when they buy As You Like It tickets. The play is a comedy; audiences are likely hoping to laugh. For this to happen, the funny lines need to be enunciated and articulated at an audible speed. Countless good lines were lost simply because they couldn’t be at all understood. Touchstone and Jacques (Mattia Mariotti and Nishant Raj, respectively) valiantly attempted to prevent this through their own commendable performances, but in the first half they took up this fight more or less alone. Pacing and blocking issues were both improved after the intermission, and their prevalence near the start can probably be put down to excess energy or pre-show jitters—but even so, it shouldn’t take the better part of a cast 40 minutes to acclimatize appropriately.
Another danger inherent to Kozel and Bailey’s As You Like It, however minor, is its proximity to a previous production of the same play in February of 2012. This means that some audience members have at least one other student production of As You Like It in ready memory when viewing this one. There’s little to be gained from comparing the two shows directly, but it may still happen subconsciously for better or for worse. To ask which one is better would be unseemly, though if a comparison has to be made, the 2015 production would be aided by shrugging off its first half before stepping into the ring.
Of course, the show had several positive elements. Three of the aforementioned actors—Ebe Bamgboye, Nishant Raj, and Mattia Mariotti—were so good that their names bear repeating. Alongside them was a strong showing from Shonagh Smith (Celia) and a stellar performance by Emily Hoyle (Rosalind, the play’s hero); the latter delivered what may have been the best Epilogue I’ve heard in my time at St Andrews. Even some members of the cast who got off to a wish-washy start in the first half proved their mettle later on, Chalmers (Orlando, as aforementioned) among them. Also worth mentioning was the show’s musical accompaniment, played and sung by Michael Shanks (with occasional accompaniment from the mustachioed David Trimble); this proved one of the play’s lasting charms as time marched along. In terms of its audience, the Barron space was set up in an L-shape—which, though not particularly extraordinary, should be lauded for being at least somewhat more inventive than the norm.
Ultimately—in this show’s defense—it is better to have a superior second half than a superior first half, to be sure. When appraised alone, As You Like It’s second half was a likable performance—but again, it was sullied by affiliation with its predecessor. A play with so many positive ingredients has the capacity for unmitigated success, so what precisely went awry during development is difficult to discover. Blocking and pacing, the show’s primary weaknesses, are relatively foundational elements, however—and there is so much of both to be monitored in a sizable Shakespeare show such as this that they may be more susceptible to foundering. Perhaps the lesson to take from As You Like It is that—even with all the right assets and some extra ones to boot—it is crucial to dedicate time to the basics.