The Bridge Project, the transatlantic theatre tour directed by Sam Mendes, is now in its second year, and this year’s pairing brought As You Like It and The Tempest to the Old Vic. Unlike last year’s Winter’s Tale, where accents were used to distinguish between the characters of Sicily and Bohemia, here the English and American cast members were fully integrated; a gesture characteristic of a production full of bonhomie and convivial humour.
Driven by Juliet Rylance’s hearty performance as Rosalind, Mendes’s As You Like It sold itself not on originality (the blasted wintry forest of the first act reminiscent of last year’s RSC production; while a second half opening scene featuring Edward Bennett’s Oliver having his head plunged into water by Frederick’s goons was plagiarised directly from Tim Supple’s 2009 Leicester production), but on the gusto of its performances. Rylance’s boisterousness initially ran the risk of being little more than shouting and strutting, but her triumphant Ganymede – whether acting out the entire spectrum of a woman’s emotions or turning shrieks into manly coughs – was irresistably ingratiating, capturing the energy necessary to draw everyone along in Rosalind’s schemes. This was aided by Michelle Beck’s unusually prominent Celia, the only character with the strength of mind to match Rosalind. The two worked as a pair; even when Celia was silent, she actively walked the stage with Rosalind and provided a foil for Orlando’s confusion. Bitterly resentful at court and comically threatening on her exhausted arrival in the forest, Celia underwent a subtle but noticable transformation in the forest, and blossomed under the attentions of Oliver.
Tom Piper’s simple set saw bare boards give way to a snowy forest in the first half, and a thick undergrowth replace the snow in the second. Paul Pryant’s lighting was the star of the design though: shafts of fading sun gave the Duke’s al fresco banquet a bitter crispness, while a deep yellow, sharply-angled haze gave the later forest scenes the impression of early morning. Mendes evoked a nostalgic rural past tinged by sadness: amid the relaxed and lazy lifestyle of the forest, grace notes hinted at the transience suggested by the lighting: Adam quietly passed away at the banquet as the act closed, Touchstone raised Audrey’s veil in front of Oliver Martext and was suddenly struck by genuine sober affection, and the gentle philosophy of Corin – a beautifully subtle performance by Anthony O’Donnell – was appealing in its simplicity, until he laughed raucously at the spellbound and thoroughly taken in Touchstone. Stephen Dillane’s understated Jaques epitomised this side to the play, often delivering lines while lying down and meandering through the play with a lazy air. Dillane’s Jaques was something of a revelation: his quietness acted to dominate his scenes, hushing the action and creating the exact ambience that Jaques purported to undermine.
Happily, however, the more wistful aspects of the production didn’t negate the more obvious comedy. Rylance’s enthusiasm quickened the pace whenever it was in danger of becoming too slow, and Thomas Sadoski’s deeply railing Touchstone injected a harsh note into the humour – only silenced when a beaten William violently headbutted him by way of parting. Silvius (Aaron Krohn) and Phoebe (Ashley Atkinson) were another comic highlight, although again less was definitely more. Silvius’s anguished realisation of the contents of Phoebe’s letter drew spontaneous outpourings of sympathy from an engrossed audience, and Phoebe similarly lost control while ruminating on Ganymede’s virtues, absent-mindedly stroking Silvius’s leg as she did so, to his delight.
The production, however, was at its funniest when it lost its way. Touchstone’s “7th degree” speech took the form of an instructed dialogue between Jaques and Duke Senior, fed lines by Touchstone. Unsatisfied with their “performance”, Touchstone then proceeded to act out the duologue by himself; however, in the middle of it, his clown’s nose fell off. Sadoski quickly grabbed it and replaced it, only for it to fly off again and roll down the stage. Pursuing it with his umbrella while the rest of the cast quietly corpsed, he eventually kicked it into the audience. The good spirits of the cast were infectious on a deeply appreciative audience, who clapped and cheered until the cast eventually recovered his composure long enough to complete the scene. Later, Dillane wished Touchstone and Audrey to their well-deserved bed, while pronouncing a less optimistic warning for Silvius and Phoebe. While a moment’s hesitation suggested that this was a mistake, the cast jollily improvised around it, Phoebe reassuring a comically-stricken Silvius.
It was a shame, then, that such an interesting and nuanced production was nearly derailed by an appalling score. The interspersed songs were beautiful, especially a whole band rendition of “It was a lover and his lass” sung by Corin and Audrey, but the cloyingly saccharine keyboard music – that not only filled scene changes but was played every time a character walked on stage – smothered the comedy in an aggressive melancholia that was clearly designed to emphasise the wistful elements of Mendes’s forest, but instead served to devalue the work of the cast by instructing the audience exactly how to feel.