Saturday, 17 December 2011

Second time round: is As You Like It as I like it now?

As I said a few days ago, I reread it with the prospect of attending a semi-staged performance, found little merit in it and didn’t go. Ever since, and talking to people who love the play, I've wondered whether I was right in my reaction. So rather than put the book away on its shelf I've kept it out, and today felt I wanted to try again, picked it up and so started a re-read -- and decided to keep a log of my findings, act by act.

So, first stint, Saturday teatime.

I've just read Act I and thought it terrific. There’s lovely language, some characters are feisty -- all powerfully display their natures -- and I’d little trouble with understanding. Orlando forcefully expresses -- in gutsy prose -- his dissatisfaction with the way his elder brother treats him, and shows himself a spirited youth. I find myself respecting his interlocutor, his father’s old servant, Adam, a feeling confirmed when we see how the brother treats him, too, after showing himself vindictive and insulting to Orlando and provoking the latter to show his mettle. This deliciously wicked brother, Oliver, with no redeeming features except reluctantly recognising his brother’s qualities while persisting in his enmity -- implausible, yet I have no trouble accepting that the plot is schematic and conventional -- persuades the soon-to-perform champion wrestler to finish Orlando off when challenged by him, which in the event he fails to, even more implausibly and yet, to me, acceptably, thus establishing Orlando as indeed the courageous gentleman whose denial by his brother appears all the more dastardly.

My one point of confusion arises from the arrival on the stage of another delicious dastard, indistinguishable in his meanness and spite, the Duke, Frederic, who has usurped and banished his brother, the father of the witty Rosalind who, accompanied by her friend Celia, the Duke’s daughter, falls in love with Orlando (and he with her, natch) -- and is now banished, like her father, by the Duke. The loyal and loving Celia, another faultlessly virtuous character, decides to accompany her. Sounds nothing but corny, in fact delightful.

The clown Touchstone has been around, in the company of the girls, and even his clowning was more or less comprehensible and didn’t annoy me.

And, throughout, the verse, as spoken by the noble characters, as opposed to the proley prose of others and of themselves off duty, as it were, is lovely.

So, first take: why do I react so differently this time?

For a start I'm taking my time, while previously I was racing to get through it before the performance. Perhaps also, in the expectation of that performance, I couldn’t help envisaging how embarrassing and excruciating a bad reading by amateur luvvies might be (not that I’d any good reason to suppose it would be bad, except that the readers would be amateurs).

I think the other reason is that I find myself thinking quite a lot about the teaching of Shakespeare in schools, something I never attempted except for GCE exams, as few of us did in those days. And I was thinking all the time in part of my mind how a stroppy class of, say, year 9 kids would take it -- think of that group Simon Callow made such a hash of teaching in that Jamie Oliver experiment. And I can’t see what it would take, even if the language ceased to be an obstacle, to get them to accept the absurd conventions of the genre -- like accepting that characters sing in operas.

I recall though that at Walworth School in the early 1950s a third year class (year 9 in today’s terminology) did a production of scenes from As You Like It at a drama festival with their English teacher Arthur Harvey. We have a photograph of it and recollections by someone in the class and I have the impression that they loved it. Different kids from Jamie’s, of course, but still poor and working-class.

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