As You Like It/The Tempest, The Old Vic, London

Stephen Dillane is an unshowy, deliberative actor. He makes every word count. It’s a pity, then, when you can’t hear them, as is sometimes the case in the pair of plays that constitute the second year of Sam Mendes’s Bridge Project.

He is a natural Prospero in The Tempest: one could easily imagine him so locked in contemplation that his dukedom slips away from him, leading to his ejection into exile on this remote island. But, as he explains this history to his daughter Miranda, in one of Shakespeare’s more vital expository scenes (since this is the only story the playwright ever originated), Dillane is so pensive and soft-voiced that words and phrases become unintelligible to various parts of the house. As the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It, he is more audible, modulating his voice downwards in pitch to a sombre rumble, yet he seems to have given so much thought to the melancholy in Jaques’ character that he scarcely registers as a presence onstage.

Mendes’s directorial keynotes are similar to those of Dillane as a performer: thoughtfulness, detail, scrupulous attention. Here he links the plays conceptually through the poet Ted Hughes’s notion that each concerns the exile of a duke and his daughter, and that the 12-year period of Prospero’s exile corresponds to the interval between the composition of the two plays, making The Tempest a later, minor-key variation on the themes first considered in As You Like It. This makes for an interesting diptych, but a less compelling As You Like It if seen in isolation.

Bringing out the deeper notes in Shakespeare’s comedies is all very well as long as it does not hobble them as comedies. In Mendes’s As You Like It, many of the laughs seem dutiful, and it is a long, bleak winter before spring breaks on the forest of Arden during the interval. In this latter season Juliet Rylance’s Rosalind hits her stride, palpably “fathom deep in love” at every moment, and Christian Camargo’s Orlando begins too to meet her eye after a strangely diffident start in general.

Rylance is also a wonderstruck Miranda in The Tempest, wooed by Edward Bennett’s honest, appealing Ferdinand. (Bennett brings a tang of conscience to Orlando’s brother Oliver in As You Like It.)

The magic and fluidity of the late play are more interpretatively accommodating, and as Mendes stages it within a sand circle into which Prospero invokes other characters, we feel the care and concentration with which this duke handles all matters, the magic in equipoise with the melancholy.

Here, too, Camargo’s slight air of distraction works as part of the characterisation of Ariel. Ron Cephas Jones is a dignified Caliban, and Thomas Sadoski and Anthony O’Donnell strike up another double act as Stephano and Trinculo, having earlier made an unusually knowing pairing as Touchstone the jester and Corin the shepherd.

As with the first year of Mendes’s transatlantically cast touring project, one half of the picture proves more thoroughly satisfying than the other, and once again it is the late Shakespearean drama rather than either 2009’s Chekhov or this year’s too-muted festive comedy.

As You Like It () The Tempest () www.oldvictheatre.com

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