Arden, the new play by English Theatre Leipzig. Shakespeare, as we all know, is a difficult thing to pull off. Selecting which play to do can be a challenge in and of itself. Here, English Theatre Leipzig chose to adapt “As You Like It”, a play probably better known for some of its quotes than its plot. In essence, think warring dukes, slightly implausible identity swaps, a central romance (or pair thereof), a brace of fools, and a forest. Standard Shakespearean fare.
This isn’t ETL’s first foray into the world of the bard, with Elsie and Norm’s Macbeth having been their 3rd official production. That was a riotous affair, a pantomime of reenactment that had the audience in stitches. The houses were fine but there was a worry that having something so recognizably Shakespearian in the title would put people off. That the language would perhaps be inaccessible. So it makes sense that “As You Like it” becomes “Arden”, named for the forest where most of the action takes place. The text has been reworked considerably to both update where necessary and, more importantly, make it accessible. I do enjoy a bit of Shakespeare every now and again, but dear Lord, it’s an uphill slog sometimes. Not so in this production. The reworking was excellent, and credit should be given to Junyu Li & Letizia Rivera who developed the text.
So, how do you stage this now-accessible text?
Often a battle rages between the “doublets and hose” brigade versus the proponents of “let’s set it in a 50s diner”. The need to re-invent can often overshadow the production itself. Chiara Funari found the perfect solution. The costumes were brilliantly conceived, hinting at the traditional garb of the day but with more than a nod to modernity. Each detail – the arm of a doublet, the panniers, the surcoat, perfectly hinted at the time but didn’t lock the production into that one time frame alone.
Since it is the title of the play, Arden should be well-represented – almost a character in itself, and it was. The ingenious set design (Tini Sey and Jordan Thieblot), in harmony with lighting (Christoph Giesemann), evoked the forest of Arden in a stylized, simple, yet effective way. ETL has proven itself able to work wonders with a bit of string (I’m looking at you, Eurydice). The company has once again done wonders with very little. As a result they are all to be commended for the depth and believability of their forest.
So “if all the world’s a stage” (I told you there’d be a quote you knew) then we must come to the players.
Leon Keim played both Oliver, the vindictive lord, and the wrestler. His portrayal of Oliver’s later, softer side, when he woos Celia, was markedly more effective than the earlier, meaner Oliver, who fought with his brother. Touchstone the Jester was played (with gusto) by both Pablo Franchini and Armin Hertel and often to the delight of the audience. It was evident that they were clearly enjoying their performance. One scene, in particular, had the audience cheering aloud, but no spoilers from me. As you would expect from a jester, they were responsible for most of the laughs. Junyu Li played the forester… And a violin (literally), but really had very little to do other than service the scene for Jacques.
Speaking of Jacques, the melancholy lord was played by Peter Hubbard. As always, he put in a quality performance, utilizing his often excellent comedic timing and laconic delivery style. Jacqueline Fischer played Celia. Here I was reminded of Alan Rickman, who said the most important skill of an actor is to listen. It is not the delivery of your own line but the reaction and intent given to who you are playing opposite that counts. I fear this was slightly lacking in her scenes, at times. And the same could be said for Emre Atay, as Orlando. I hope that Emre also finds the innate confidence required for Orlando. However, these criticisms could very well be due to opening night jitters. He was for the most part OK, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Except for the fact that he was playing opposite Josiane Segar as Rosalind.
Here is an actress that inherently understands the need to listen, and it shows.
Her reactions, comedic timing, and mannerisms were all spot-on. It was a performance that demanded excellence from the other cast members and regrettably, this didn’t always happen.
Arden was well-directed by Letizia Rivera, with some lovely creative flourishes, and presented in one act with no interval. The run continues on 9, 10, 16, and 17 September at the Neues Schauspiel Leipzig.
Arden is Shakespeare in its most accessible form, an overall enjoyable production with many highlights. It is a solid night out. Worthy of a night at the theatre, and Josiane’s performance alone is worth the entry fee.
Dates: 8, 9, 10, 16, 17 September
Venue: Neues Schauspiel Leipzig