23 JUNE 1973, Page 22


Kenneth Hurren: Hey nonny nonny and mostly no

The Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon is clearly having such a merry old time in Shakespeare's As You Like It, under the direction of a lady whimsically named Buzz Goodbody, that it seems almost wantonly churlish to observe that this twee little romp — fun though it may be up there on the stage — is as depressing to attend as any party at which everyone is tipsy except oneself.

It is not doing potential patrons any favour, though, to trifle with the unhappy truth. It is probably worth remarking, too (having also in mind the Romeo and Juliet set in a shipyard, which opened the present season), and in the thin hope of undermining the arrogant complacency that evidently prevails in the comfortably subsidised RSC administration, that the theatre by the Avon is not the company's private playpen. Without putting it as high as a shrine, it is a place where more than ordinary regard for the Shakespeare canon might be justifiably expected.

Expectations of that order are these days being flouted with disagreeable frequency, and the trouble stems largely, I should guess, from a general lack of confidence in the texts, which may be permissible and indeed understandable in other places, but not

here. As You Like It — by the consent of generations who have crept like snail unwilling to study it at school—is, to be sure, an especially foolish and tiresome piece. I could not seriously dispute with a director who took a glum view of it; but I should not expect him (or, more relevantly, her) to be employed to direct it at Stratford. Miss Goodbody plainly regarded the play with total dismay and her assignment as something that could only be made tolerable by, among other quaintnesses, getting in a bit of pop and kitting up the personnel with some decent contemporary threads.

The result is not entirely disastrous: it is fair to say that the wrestling match — staged by Brian Glover, who also plays Charles — is as convincingly rehearsed as any of commercial television's Saturday-afternoon mat mauls, and has room besides for an engaging element of parody; Richard Pasco, as Jaques, affects a cynical distaste for all about him that strikes an immediately responsive note in the audience; and Eileen Atkins plays Rosalind with a fine coltish grace, and gives every indication that hers would be a really admirable performance in a production more seriously concerned than this one with what the comedy is about. Miss Goodbody's notions in that regard are somewhat antic. There is nothing wrong, on the face of it, in putting the show into a species of modern dress, but in our amusing unisex times there is an at tendant peril so obvious that even to mention it is to seem to labour it: this is, of course, that the ro mantic business in the forest, hung mainly on Orlando's in ability to recognise Rosalind in her disguise as a boy, is going to seem more ludicrous than ever when she looks no more boyish in trousers than she did in a dress. There is also a little difficulty with the text: since, according to a pro gramme note, "about sixty lines" have been cut, it would seem sen sible to make it " about sixty two" and take out the ones in which Rosalind, in a fetching blue denim trouser-suit, talks of her doublet-and-hose. Miss Goodbody is as heedless of such dis crepancies between the play and her production as she is of the similarly pivotal idea of illuminat ing the contrast between the court life and the country life. Rural reflections are not encouraged by a Forest of Arden consisting mostly of hanging metal rods, and even if the imagination struggles successfully to translate these into an unlikely symbol for trees, defeat is just around the corner in the shape of the banished duke and his fellows, allegedly roughing it but finding new pleasures in the simple rustic life, who stroll on as elegant highborn drop-outs in clothes that would not be altogether out of place in Belgrave Square.

This dismissive view of the romantic and pastoral elements in the play may be said to represent the negative aspect of Miss Goodbody's approach to it, but she has bitten off more than she wishes to eschew, and there is evi dence of positive thinking, too, quite apart from the pop wardrobe and the soft-rock accompaniment to the traditional song lyrics, and the lark ish touch at the end when the assembled players, in a final outburst of bizarre jocularity, heave handfuls of confetti over the cringing spectators in the stalls. We have, for instance, a strange emphasis upon the casually slipshod framework-plot and the tedious villainies of the usurping duke (played by Clement McCallin with a black eyepatch and a suave, sinister air), and, worse, upon Touchstone.

Perhaps Shakespeare's most repellent comic invention, Touchstone is a droll of a singularly childish and exasperating design who, in the costume of some remote period, might be tolerantly indulged as an example of a lowcomedy style mercifully no longer with us. When we have him in modern dress, the pitiful nature of his verbal routines is inevitably so exaggerated that he becomes an almost unendurable nuisance, and the object of any director of sensibility would be to get through his essential scenes as briskly as possible and otherwise keep him hidden behind the scenery. Miss Goodbody, lacking sensibility (not to mention scenery), seems almost to go out of her way to extend his appearances and, for good measure, allots him a formidably rotund Audrey, a bouncy butterball determined that we shall have fun at her expanse. I had none.

Things were little better in London. The Bankside Globe began the summer season with Jonathan Miller's Nottingham production of Marston's The Malcontent, an indifferent Elizabethan farcical melodrama of no more than curiosity value; and Irving Wardle's The Houseboy (or 'There Are Queerer Things Than Being a Drama Critic '), was produced by Charles Marowitz at the Open Space. This latter item was apparently inspired, if that's the word (and it isn't), by its author's bygone experiences in a Kensington hotel for single gentlemen. It was clearly a most desperately traumatic experience for a young chap, caught on a bent staircase, so to speak, with his head full of wild erotic fantasies, but all his colleagues were very nice about it. I suppose I could be wrong.