On Thursday evening, I found myself in a theatre in a Buckinghamshire town watching a live relay from another theatre - the National in London - of their current production of As You Like It. I was not there from choice, a night at the theatre being a long way from my idea of fun. Still (I consoled myself), at least it wasn't that eighth circle of Hell known as the West End, and it might even be a good production; one must, I told myself as I downed a second pre-curtain snifter, keep an open mind. It is surely quite possible that a theatre director can do justice to Shakespeare, throw new light on his work, bring out subtleties of meaning and characterisation that might escape us text-readers. Let's give this National Theatre As You Like It a chance...
Alas, my generous frame of mind dissolved with the first sight of the horrific, high-tech, dayglo-coloured, fantastically elaborate set. It was the image of a frantic, strip-lit modern office or call centre, with everyone not hammering away at a computer keyboard engaged in pointless scurrying to and fro (the supernumerary cast was huge - heaven knows what this production cost). And then there was a cleaner mopping the floor - a gormless young man who turned out to be Orlando, for yes, this was, despite all appearances, As You Like It by William Shakespeare.
A little later, I removed my head from my hands to find the weedy Orlando engaged in a wrestling match with a huge black man, to the accompaniment of cheerleaders, flashing lights and thumping music. And so it went on. Virtually nothing we were shown bore any obvious relation to the lines being spoken, and the modern costumes and bizarre casting (much of it 'colour-blind') made it extremely difficult to work out who was who or what was going on.
Maybe, I told myself with no great conviction, things will improve when they get to the Forest of Arden. Then, with an almighty crashing and bashing of metal on metal, the entire set was hauled up into the gods and left hanging down to the stage in a tangled mess (with some of the poor supernumeraries still at their posts, obliged to keep still and silent in the shadows). This, I realised, was to be the Forest of Arden, and there the rest of the action played laboriously out. At some point before the final act I retreated to the pub over the road for a much-needed double.
This As You Like It was, it seemed to me, a classic case of the production entirely overwhelming the work - and even, perversely, rendering much of it incomprehensible. A comedy that demands a light touch and close attention to the words and their delivery has been crushed underfoot up by a director's rampaging ego. God knows it is not the first time this has happened to Shakespeare, and it won't be the last. But why apparently sane people pay good money to go and see it done to our greatest - the world's greatest - poet and dramatist I cannot understand. I can only put it down to the absurd prestige and kudos The Theatre - and Going to the Theatre - have in this country.
Never mind - Shakespeare of course towers unscathed above everything that is done to his works and in his name. And even in this lamentable production there were a couple of performances I enjoyed - Patsy Ferran's Celia and Paul Chahidi's Jaques. Rosalind too was good, though the modern dress meant that she looked much the same as Ganymede and as herself - Orlando would merely have taken her for Rosalind with a new hairstyle. Thus, as in so many other ways, did the production make a nonsense of the play. I don't think I'll be beating a path to the West End any time soon.