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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Not As You Like It

Saturday, July 11, 2009

When a drunk member of the audience, cat-calling and muttering much of the way through a performance, is more coherent that the play on stage, you know you are in trouble. Heartbreak Productions' version of As You Like It, which is touring outdoor venues across the UK this summer, starts off promisingly, but ultimately degenerates into a farce, forgetting its linguistic roots and becoming a musical bawdy - and a badly sung one at that.

The premise is good. As the audience munches on cous cous and Italian breadsticks beforehand, the stage set places us in a hippie camp in the 1960s, with rainbow spinners and Beatles soundtrack, whilst the cast mingle with the audience and proclaim peace, man. Once the play opens, though, the stage is transformed into the grey state of oppressive Duke Frederick. The cast emerge, changed from their colourful wool cloaks into brown trench coats, wielding loudhailers and throwing torches over the audience. A poster of the Duke glowers above. Choosing the 1960s as the setting for this comedy makes sense, with the dichotomy between free love and totalitarian Communism appropriately matched to the rupture between the life of the court in Act One of Shakespeare's comedy, and the festival passions of the Forest of Arden in the later Acts.

However, having hatched this conceit, director Peter Mimmack and his young cast let it loose with decreasing restraint. Whilst the first act sticks fairly closely to the language of the original, it starts to introduce folksy sing-songs and audience interaction. The court wrestler, for example, leaps on stage like some anachronistic Hulk Hogan, and exorts the audience to support him. His duel with Orlando is laugable, as the thing is made like a hammed-up WWF fight, with only the pretense of contact. Whether this is bad dramatic acting, or part of the plan, either way the ambiguity of the wrestle, that Orlando actually kills his opponent but Rosalind is unreserved in her affection for him, is lost.

However, it is the language which suffers the most violence. In the interval, we are told to wave our right hands in the air whenever we hear the word forest, and to rock a baby whenever we hear the word love. Martext, the country vicar in Shakespeare's original, becomes a loved-up American preacher who acts like some sort of perverse Widow Twanky, urging the audience to join in. The whole thing becomes a pantomime, as we listen for the cues rather than hearing what is said. Soon, Shakespeare's play turns into the soundtrack of the 1960s, with songs by Bob Dylan, the Beatles and other old favourites. Anyone of middle age must take a nostalgia trip when characters break into song rather than keeping to speech. By the end, Ganymede's revelation that she is in fact Rosalind, which neatly ties up her relationship with Orlando, and ensures Silvius and Phebe form their unlikely partnership, is not delivered through speech at all. Instead, we are all told to get to our feet and sing along with "All You Need is Love." No, all I need is some of the transformative but subversive magic that comes with all Shakespeare's comedies, the pleasure of revelation and satisfied relationships that is tempered by the fact that we are, ultimately, aware that this is pure wish fulfillment. Whilst Jacques would have it that all the world's a stage, this metaphor only works so far, which is precisely the point of this play: it ends as we would like it, but not as we could have it in reality. But instead of these complexities, we get childishness.

I may sound snobby here, so I will make clear that I do not agree with the drunken woman who kept shouting "It's not Shakespeare," implying that Shakespeare's plays should be treated as revered relics that cannot be tampered with. Shakespeare may transcend his historical moment, but it is only through adaptation that we can keep imagining his possibilities in our own times. So I am by no means against adaptation or liberal interpretations. Last year, I saw a remarkably effective version of Cymbeline produced by Kneehigh Theatre, which used radio-controlled cars and largely dispensed with the original language entirely. It may not have been Shakespeare in any pure sense, but it certainly helped to convey the mood of what is probably Shakespeare's most chaotic and unstructured play. As Heartbreak's director notes in the programme, As You Like It poses similar problems, with a series of self-contained love scenes not really integrated with the action of any over-arching plot. But the reason for the success of Kneehigh's Cymbeline was that it had the boldness to do away with the language almost entirely: it was an interpretation, not an adaptation. Heartbreak's As You Like It simply does not know where it stands. It opens as adaptation, and a clever one at that in transporting the play to the 1960s; but it ends as interpretation, and a daft one too. And because we have sensed the possibilities of Shakespeare's play in the language that is offered, such as the deeply troubling and metatheatrical nature of Jacques the melancholy jester, the spill into music and adlibbed interaction holds up badly in contrast. The whole thing is, frankly, a mess.

It is not helped by the fact that Dan McGarry as Orlando lacks the eloqution when the play does opt to stick with the original language. His words slur together, perhaps appropriate for a teenage rebel but hardly helpful in an outdoor setting with naturally difficult acoustics. There are a couple of better performances. Michael Sabbaton as Frederick and a Welsh Corin is excellent, but miscast as Frederick, for his wiry frame does not convince that he could ever be a Stalin-esque dictator. Helen Rynne as Rosalind/Ganymede is also quite effective, transforming from a doe-eyed girl to a chippy lad - though the old cliche of dressing a woman as a chimney sweep with a Cockney accent is a very sad one.

At the end of the play, the cast, back in their free-loving colourful costumes, exort us all to spread the word of peace and tell our friends about this production, which is on tour around the UK until the 30th August. If you are gathered by the camp fire of this blog, I have one phrase for you: don't do it, man.

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Posted by Alistair at 1:44 pm

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