As You Like It by the National Theatre of London: What Were They Thinking?

I did something tonight I have never done before. I walked out in the middle of a Shakespeare production. The only time I’ve ever been tempted to walk out of a Shakespeare production was a terrible Troilus and Cressida production I saw 28 years ago at Stratford, Ontario. But even that piece of dung was superior to what I endured this evening. I went to see a Fathom events screening of the National Theatre’s production of As You Like It. Shakespeare. Done in London. Should be awesome, right? No, not awesome. In fact, quite the opposite of awesome.

But let me start with something positive. They showed a little pre-show National Theatre infommercial. We got to see old productions and hear interviews with some of the people who work with the National Theatre. One of them was an old professor of mine from the University of Michigan. He left Michigan after I graduated and went back to England to work with the National Theatre. Benedict Nightingale was always a doll and a great teacher. So, it was double-plus-good to get to see him on the big screen and hear his lovely voice again.

Another of the most entertaining bits of the night was that the movie failed to start, sort of. We got some of the video, but the audio continued to be the pre-movie commercials, songs, and PSAs so it felt a little I was watching a Chinese martial arts movie that had overdosed on English steroids. Seriously, it was more entertaining than the play itself.

Let me give full disclosure. As You Like It is not one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies. That honor belongs to a tie between Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed closely by Much Ado and the Tempest. But still, it’s Shakespeare, and it has so many elements that I can and do love that I tend to enjoy every production I see.

This production? This staging? It was atrocious. I can’t even begin to enumerate the ways I couldn’t stand it. But, gentle reader, I will try.

First, the staging, set design, and setting.

Okay, they took a dukedom and turned into a cubicle farm (complete with a Mexican wrestler, but we’ll get to that later). All the people were employees doing a choreographed set piece of shuffling paper one to the next. And they wore pink jackets or yellow jackets and tight pants (but we’ll get to that later too).

I wouldn’t mind the setting so much since it can be a commentary on how the new duke, Frederick, (who banished the good and wise Duke Senior) is a tyrant, except that there is nothing to indicate that the old duke was any better. We are supposed to surmise that the working conditions had been different before, I guess.

The only cool thing is when we change settings from office building to the forest, the woodlands are made up of the rising/floating desks and chairs. The office furniture floats in the air and provides the backdrop and canopy cover of the forest. Pretty cool and nicely eerie.

And now I must address the acting. Or lack thereof. I’ve gotten used to seeing these great actors say the lines. They know them. They live them, and yet they deliver them as if they are saying them right now for the very first time. The words sound pure and true as they tumble out of mouths. But many of the actors in this production just weren’t up to the task. It was like their mouths were incapable of forming the words much less saying them or acting them in any sort of convincing manner.

Here are the standouts and not in a good way. Duke Ferdinand: the actor delivered his “You are banished” speech like a high school student taking his first Drama class. And Celia: who seemed like she was going for a typical college freshman took on the voicing of half Valley Girl, half Millennial and failed at both. And then there was, yes, the wrestler. He was big. He was mean. He couldn’t act. And they put him on a mat, in the middle of the cubicles, in a Mexican Wrestler mask. Huh???

Now, I left before my favorite part because I just couldn’t take it. Jaques’ “All the world’s
a stage” speech always brings me to tears. But I knew that if I stayed, I might start heckling the screen, and I didn’t want to be that rude.

In the end, I spent time noticing that several of the male cast members must also be dancers. They had great butts and wore really tight pants (and for that I give thanks to the costume designer). And the camera operator, for some reason, gave us a whole bunch of really tight shots of the tight buns. I don’t mind nice butts. In fact, I tend to appreciate them quite a bit. But, honestly, if the point at which I find myself marveling at a peach-shaped behind is during Act 1 Scene 2 in a Shakespeare play, then the production must be doing something other than holding my attention.


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