Thursday, July 12, 2012

Who is Rosalind?

I've heard it argued that when it comes to Shakespeare's As You Like It male readers would rather read the play than see it because Rosalind on stage will never be match their ideal of a true love so much as Rosalind in print. Maybe: I saw my first Rosalind 56 years ago and I was flattened. Of course I was yound and testosterone poisoned so anything flattened me. And by contrast, the last two Rosalinds I've seen in Ashland (last night, and five years ago), both came across as disappointments--each upstaged by her Celia, and each in a different way a hole in the center of an interesting production.  So maybe the folklore is right: maybe it can't be done.

Or it might be a generational thing; I suspect that possibly it isjust not that easy to find an actress who can manage the miraculous mix of masculine and feminine that makes Rosalind so charming (sic, on paper?).  But for the moment forget five years ago: there may have been a particular culprit in last night's presentation and that is a director's decision as to presentation.

Let me clarify: somebody--I assume it was the director--seems to have decided that everybody in the cast must orate (can I say "elocute"?) in what seemed to be a 19th-Century schoolroom declamatory style, belting out the words with full attention to clarity, even at the expense of emotional nuance.  In some cases, this seems to have worked.  Specifically, Orlando and his brothers.  Set aside the question whether anybody can play Rosalind, I must say this was the first Orlando I've ever seen who presented himself as even remotely interesting.  Virtually all Orlandos are a cipher--so much so that it's a problem for the play to figure out why Rosalind would see anything in them. Not here: for once, Orlando has his day.

But for so many others, I'd say that schoolbook declamation seems to turn everything wooden, and to push actors into a mode where they are delivering speeches, not conversing, not engaging, not part of a play.  Seen in this light, last night's Rosalind appears pretty clearly to have been trying something--but it wasn't quite clear what she was trying, and through all her declamation, it wasn't really easy to see it.

Moving beyond Rosalind--perhaps the biggest surprise for me in this performance was Touchstone, the fool.  Here's something I never noticed before:  He's really a rotten human being--snobbish, mean, a bully, and at the end of the day not all that clever. How could I have missed that all these years, I  wonder?  Not sure: maybe my tastes have changed, but maybe other Touchstones have carried it in a manner that undermines his intrinsic rancor.

Aside from Rosaland's and (perhaps) Touchstone's charm, it seemed to me there was another gap in the play.  I'm thinking of the whole pastoral setting.  In other performances, it has been possible to see the play as an elaborate and elegant commentary on the grand poetic tradition of the pastoral, as it goes back to Theocritus and Vergil.  You had pastoral characters here, of course, and a kind of commentary.  But again, I think maybe it got lost in the declamation.  Aside from clarity and energy, you need some poetry.  And if there was any here, I guess I didn't find it.

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