Comedy and tragedy

Jim Moody reviews two RSC productions at the Roundhouse

Sometimes dismissed as unserious, even unworthy of its author, Shakespeare's As you like it has been given vibrant life by the Royal Shakespeare Company's current Roundhouse production.

No superficial comedy, as some bourgeois critics have viewed it, As you like it exposes many dark corners of Elizabethan society. And in the process a political poverty of riches is re-vealed.

This production was first seen nearly two years ago, when it was at Stratford upon Avon. It has improved by a slight maturing and fits its current venue exceptionally well.

Young Orlando (Jonjo O'Neill) has to leave home after being persecuted by his older brother, Oliver (Charles Aitken). Previously enamoured of Rosalind (Katy Stephens), who has since been banished from court, Orlando wanders listlessly in the Forest of Arden, and falls into company with a young 'boy' ... who just happens to be Rosalind disguised in male clothing as Ganymede. Cue sharing of thoughts about Rosalind and a degree of gay undertone to add a frisson to the humour. (Deliberately adding to the sexual confusion, in the early 17th century boys played girls and young women on stage.)

Many are the references to the 'old religion' (aka witchcraft), as opposed to Christianity, with appearance of Hern the Hunter figures. And frequent are the interpolations of music and singing, giving a rambunctious and bawdy flavour to this full-bodied work.

The social context of As you like it was an England that was beginning to lose its (imagined) romantic bucolic lustre, as former agricultural labourers migrated to the towns and cities. Formerly open land where commoners could graze their pigs, sheep and cattle was being enclosed apace and immiseration of the majority was the order of the day. This was the society that the play inhabits. The shepherd, Corin (Geoffrey Freshwater), gives voice to some of the concerns that the economically disenfranchised must have made common in Shakespeare's hearing.

King Lear is an altogether different work. It certainly cannot be labelled with the denigration 'crowd-pleasing' that As you like it has sometimes been, unfairly, stuck with. Written some years later, it opened only a few months after the 'gunpowder plot'. This Lear (Greg Hicks) is agonisingly in your face and well provides the play's visceral impact, as the story unfolds.

For those who are unfamiliar with the tale, it turns on the monarch's decision to retire from kingship and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. But Cordelia (Samantha Young), the youngest, fails to deliver an encomium to her father's liking and so is peremptorily cut out of his legacy and banished. It all goes downhill from then on.

Lear's two elder daughters, Goneril (Kelly Hunter) and Regan (Katy Stephens), prove to be ungrateful wretches, humiliating him and refusing to keep to the terms of the settlement. Meanwhile Edmund (Tunji Kasim), illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester (Geoffrey Freshwater), conspires against legitimate son Edgar (Charles Aitken), forcing him into a semi-naked, bare existence in the woods.

Betrayals and barbarities multiply. Lear loses the balance of his mind and bonds with the temporarily deranged Edgar when he and his much-reduced party come across him. Edmund proves to be a rake and sets Goneril and Regan against each other for his favours. Cordelia's marriage to the King of France (Brian Doherty) and a subsequent attempt by the French army to invade adds to the disintegration of what was Lear's kingdom.

Finally, Lear's daughters variously commit suicide, are poisoned or hanged, Lear dies of grief, and Edgar stabs Edmund to death and their father, Gloucester, breathes his last.

Reference in the script to a time before Merlin suggests Shakespeare placed the action in the sixth or seventh centuries. Lear's name may have Celtic origins. However, artistic licence bundles history in a confection, helping to shape awareness of what lies beneath the stark surface of a truly dramatic dynastic and ruling class storyline. And the use of more modern uniforms and other costumes, as well as props, fits very well with the intention of the playwright to abstract political motivations and display them subtly in the artistic manner to which we have become accustomed. As with others of his plays, of course, the layering of meaning is one of the delights that Shakespeare provides.

The language of the text is, of course, superlative and delivered by both casts in excellent fashion, as is only to be expected. Especial plaudits must go to Geoffrey Freshwater and Katy Stephens, who appear in both plays. Indeed, Michael Boyd (As you like it) and David Farr (King Lear) masterfully direct stand-out casts in impressive, yet sparely set stagings.

If you hurry, you just might be able to catch one or other of the RSC performances at the Roundhouse: they are really unmissable.