Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden is a place of alchemy, where fellowship is born out of adversity, where foes become friends, and where love grows apace. In Samuel West’s Sheffield Crucible production, the alchemy extends to the stage itself, where actors haul, out of an empty white box set, a silver-grey tree with bare ruin’d boughs; where they bring on a huge balloon that lights up like the sun or the moon; and where the uniform black-and-white world of the fascist-brutalist court turns bit by bit into a Utopian realm of colour and diversity. “All the world’s a stage”; and the stage is all the world. By the end, Rosalind-Ganymede’s androgyny spreads across the community like cross-pollination. Does this sound like a director’s concept tacked on to the play? The marvel is that the actors make it natural.
Passing revelations here include the fleeting melancholy, caught from Jacques, with which Rosalind says: “I had rather a fool to make me merry than experience to make me mad.” Shakespeare’s charity towards his creations, whereby supporting characters (old Adam, Orlando’s brother Oliver, Silvius) light up the play with some of its most astonishing lines, is wonderfully apparent: every person here has his/her moment of illuminating humanity.
Rosalind is Eve Best, who next month arrives on Broadway in the Old Vic’s Moon for the Misbegotten. Searchingly intelligent, she understands that Rosalind must be the most spontaneous person in the play: the play is both her own process of self-discovery and her magical transformation of other lives. Sometimes she lets us know too forcefully how she is acting out that spontaneity: her performance will be twice as wonderful when she eliminates those actorly and artfully artless caesuras in mid-phrase (“How many fathoms deep” – pause, change of vocal colour – “I am in love”). Yet you can feel how she can feel that the audience is most in her grasp when the thought flows from her lips in blithely coherent clauses like wit in flower. I will not soon forget the tender compassion with which she tells poor Silvius: “I see love hath made thee a tame snake.”
Who can miss it here? The alchemy that transforms the Forest of Arden is love itself.
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