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Playreading Report: As You Like It, Edinburgh, 12th November 2017

We ran a play-reading of As You Like It on Sunday, 12th November. There was with more drama than expected! We nearly had a dead dog on our hands (no, you haven’t read wrongly – we weren’t reading Two Gentlemen of Verona!).

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We had a new player at this play-reading and she had asked if she could bring along her dog, and we had agreed. The player and her dog arrived. I thought she was probably a charming young Scottish West Highland Terrier. We have other animals in our flat, in particular – mice!!! We live in a six-story tenement in Edinburgh’s New Town which dates back to the early 1800s. The block is a warren, rather like an extension to Gormenghast, and there are passages and pipes and goodness know what that run between the various flats and floors of the block. Once mice establish themselves somewhere, they are impossible to irradicate, so one has to have electronic mice derrants, and even mice poison.

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We settled down and started to read the play. Barely a page in and someone noticed that the dog was eating the mouse poison. The play-reading was suspended; we phoned the emergency vet service in Edinburgh; two of the players left the play-reading and took the dog to the vet. (I won’t hold you in suspense: the vet made the dog sick; and the last I heard it had made a full recovery).

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We had been nine players, now we were seven. Perhaps we should re-cast? The players with the roles of Orlando,  Rosalind, and Touchstone were reluctant, so we looked at the cast list for seven, and luckily  the players of Orlando and Rosalind were only playing those roles, so we left the three players unchanged, and re-cast the four of us with the smaller parts. And the play-reading started again. (Incidentally, I was rather impressed that our cast list system (with a little help of some lateral thinking) was able to cope with this sudden change of players.

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We were all a little upset by the curious incident of the dog, and it took the whole of Act 1Scene 1 (in which Orlando, too, is upset, but with his brother), before we settled down, and the play-reading took its usual course.

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I thought that our reading is improving. It’s a rather specialised skill, to be able to read Shakespeare characters straight from the page. Because we cast by lot, there’s really very little opportunity for preparing. Quite a few of the players may read the play before they come to the play-reading, but it’s not easy to take preparation much further, because you don’t know who you’re going to play. So, on the day, you’re given your part(s) , and you have to plunge in and read them without thinking about it. If you’ve done it a few times you’ll find you can let go, and the writing will carry you forward. It’s not that different from the technique that Michael Corbidge uses in his Voice and Text workshop (see RSC Voice and Text Workshop).  Of course, you have to have done it a few times before, so that you have the experience to understand the rhythms of, and trust. the text. We’re not producing the equivalent of a rehearsed production, but it has its own value for the audience who are also the players. It is something which grows in value as the players get more experienced and grow to trust each other.

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There are quite a few songs in As You Like It and they’re an important part of the play, so we rigged the casting again to allow our best singer to sing the songs, mostly sung by Amiens. We also discovered that one of our newer players has a rather good voice for singing and she sang one of the songs. Our only musical disappointment was that neither of our singers knew There was a lover and his lass – so I had to sing a rather out-of-tune version of what is almost a precis of the play.

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I had been nervous about the play before the play-reading. My partner and I had read it before the play-reading as we usually do, and we had both struggled with it, particularly my partner. It seemed incredibly silly, and what on earth was the plot? I was reassured when I remembered that we had seen three good productions of the play. The firs was the famous production with an all-male cast by Cheek by Jowl in 1991 which we saw, if I remember correctly, in the Hammersmith Palais. It was wonderful, but I’m not sure it’s a good guide to the play, but rather a production which was the outcome of two exceptional players at the peak of their powers.

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We recently saw a National Theatre production on screen where the early part of the play was played in an office, and when the scene moved to the Forest of Arden, all the furniture was raised high on stage to turn into trees. The Forest was filled with the sound of birds singing, and lambs bleating, and this was a clue to how I now think about the play.

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The leading player in As You Like It, is not Rosalind, but the Forest of Arden. The play seems to me to be about the restorative power of Nature (a theme of many of Shakespeare’s plays) and the silliness of being in love. The only thing sillier than falling in love is not realising how silly it is.

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As You like It was the first Shakespeare play that I directed. I was fascinated by the extraordinary image of so many people leaving civilised life to go to the Forest. It seemed so unbelievable. And then in a sudden flash of something, I realized that my own generation had done the same thing. I was a child of the sixties, and though there wasn’t too much Free Love where I came from, I dropped out in the early seventies to rural Scotland. I don’t know whether it was true for all the drop-outs in the late 60s /early 70s, but for me, at least, some of the motivation was to recover from the difficulties of more sophisticated city life.

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So we set our production of As You Like It in the sixties. The children loved playing hippies; to the songs in the play we added many 60s songs: Bob Dylan (his love songs not the anti-war songs); the Beatles; ending with All You Need is Love; the audience nostalgically joined in with the singing and a great time was had by all.

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Let’s playread!

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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