20 Year Anniversary: David Tennant Made His RSC Debut As Touchstone In As You Like It Today
Twenty years ago today David Tennant made his debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. He played Touchstone in Steven Pimlott's production of As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1996 and at the Barbican theatre later that year and into 1997. It was his first season at the RSC and his other roles were Hamilton in the General From America and Jack Lane in the Herbal Bed. His earlier stage work had included a wide range of classical and modern males in seasons at the Manchester Royal Exchange the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh and elsewhere as well as at the Royal National Theatre.
David speaks about how he took on the part:
I auditioned for Orlando. I knew As You Like It from seeing it at school, but I didn't remember much about that, and of course I had read it at drama school, but it wasn't one of the plays that I was particularly familiar with. I knew it was broadly about some woman dressing up as a bloke with some 'hey-nonny-no' type songs and a famous speech in the middle. I was in the thick of rehearsals for the Glass Menagerie of a up in Dundee when the call came to get to London for an RSC audition giving me woefully little time to prepare. I picked the brains of the people I was working with to get a bit more of an idea of what I was going up for. Basically the collective conclusion was 'it is a play about a woman who dresses up as a bloke with some 'hey-nonny-no' type songs and a famous speech in the middle... oh and there's a clown called Touchstone in it, the usual confusing Shakespeare jokes, a thankless part.' I remembered Touchstone from reading the play. It struck me as the sort of part I'd be useless at stuffed with endless routines and thick with references which had lost any contemporaneousness about three hundred years ago. However, I didn’t need to worry about that, they’d find some brilliant comic to play that part and he’d fill it with plenty of hilarious business that would bring it bang up to date.
I had to concern myself with Orlando, not an easy part in itself but at least I could approach it fairly conventionally. I could look at who the character was what he wanted and what his through-line was and so on.
I flew down to London the next day cribbing furiously. I'd skim read the play the night before and now I was concentrating on each of the Orlando's scenes in turn. It was a very tricky part, at once full of bullish machismo, then suddenly prancing through the trees in the depths of romantic gooeyness, but by the time I arrived at the Barbican I had it all figured out (I thought) and I strolled in ready to thrill Steven Pimlott (the director) with my brilliant intelligence and - dare I say it - revelatory take on one of Shakespeare's trickiest lovers.
"I'd like you to have a read of a bit of Touchstone" was Mr Pimlott's opening statement. I was sure I'd misheard.
"Touchstone. I'd like you to read a bit of Touchstone." Steven flashed me a large open smile. If this was some audition tactic to disarm me I was indeed duly disarmed.
"But..." - stay calm I told myself - "I was to audition for Orlando"
"Well yes but I'd like to hear a bit of Touchstone"
"OK" I replied trying and failing with all my Scottish Presbyterian stoicism to sound like I thought it was a great idea.
"Fine, what would you like to look at?"
We read a couple of scenes through. It was all I could do to pronounce some of it let alone fill it with charm or vivacity. I didn't understand most of it and as for being funny....
I was back on the plane that evening feeling very sorry for myself, nursing a bruised ego and smarting as the dream of an RSC season slipped away. So to say I was surprised two days later when my agent rang to say I'd been offered the part of Touchstone is the understatement of all time. Of course I accepted without thinking, it was a main part in a Shakespeare play in Stratford-upon-Avon, not something I could consider turning down; but over the next two weeks before we started work on it I began to seriously doubt my own sanity.
To start with I re-read the play. It struck me how episodic it all is, how many different stories are going on at the same time and yet how little actually happens. It seemed different to any other Shakespeare play I had read with pace and charm and quirkiness which I imagined would be hard to get the measure of. It has one monster part (Rosalind the heroine / hero) and a very full and varied supported cast each of whom seems to fulfil a very definite role. Orlando is the lover, Celia the friend, Duke Frederick the bad guy, Jacques the contrast, Silvus and Phebe the complimentary sub-plot, and Touchstone the comedian. Ay, there's the rub. I could see Touchstone was supposed to be funny in terms of the structure of the play, the tone of his scenes, and the fact that everyone keeps going on about how hilarious he is. Jacques in particular, an otherwise miserable sod, when confronted with Touchstone, finds his 'lungs began to crow like Chanticleer' and yet I could find nothing in the part to make me even smile. Through the rest of the play I found a lot of genuinely funny exchanges. Rosalind was very witty, Celia sported a fine line in caustic sarcasm and Jacque's melancholy cynicism gave him some wonderful put-downs, but all Touchstone seemed to have was long speeches with obscure double entendres and long tracts of cool philosophy, but nothing obviously funny. I couldn't imagine many Chanticleer-like lungs were going to be found in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the coming summer.
The next morning I bought myself a copy of the Arden study notes on As You Like It (I liked the appropriateness of the publisher) as well as two more editions of the play and I began the slow process of finding a way in to this character. It's not a huge part, just seven scenes of which three or four are little more than sketches which Shakespeare seems to use to puncture the action now and again with a breath of silliness. Unlike Feste in Twelfth Night or even the fool in King Lear, he does have his own bit of plot line in his relationship with Audrey , but quite what the nature of that is is far from clear. Does he love and want to marry her or does he just want to get his leg over? He seems uncertain himself and changes his mind from scene to scene, even from line to line - but more of that later.
All too soon it was our first day of rehearsal and .... The read-through. Always a terrifying experience when you speak your lines out loud for the first time in front of people for the first time, a read-through at the Royal Shakespeare Company is particularly scary, not only because you are at the home of 'world class classical theatre' (as all the brochures tell you) with all the history and influence of hundreds of great, definitive productions hanging in the air, but also because it's one of the few theatre companies in the country that can afford to employ the numbers if actors required to stage a full scale Shakespearian production, so the room is full of people! I sat in my place in the huge circle of chairs with palms sweating and heart racing. Everybody in the room seemed to attack their parts with intelligence and ability.
Niamh Cusack playing Rosalind was graceful and calm and verse seemed to pour off her tongue; Rachel Joyce as Celia spoke the words like they were her own, not four hundred years old at all; Liam Cunningham gave Orlando a vigour and believability (and I instantly understood why it shouldn't be my part). As my first cue approached I took a deep breath and hoped for the best. Feeling very small and hopeless I just gabbled Touchstone out as quickly as possible, fully expecting to be sacked at any moment and of course ... Nobody found it in the least bit funny.
Before we began the rehearsal properly Steven Pimlott and I talked through our initial thoughts and impressions of what Touchstone was all about. Court jesters or fools fall into two categories: the clowns and the naturals, the former being professional comedians employed to entertain by virtue of their comic talent and the latter being local simpletons or village idiots who would find themselves dressed up and kept around to be laughed at by the court.
We decided almost immediately that Touchstone was no natural. His wit was too logical, too satirical, to be accidental. He was evidently very learned and he appears very much Rosalind and Celia's intellectual equal rather than some poor gormless idiot whom they take pity on. Although Celia calls him a natural early on ('Nature...hath sent this natural for our whetstone') that is almost certainly a term of gentle abuse rather than actuality. The review, as a professional jester Touchstone is, quite literally, living on his wits. The life of a parodist or satirist in the retinue of a recently established usurping monarch cannot be an easy one.
Dictatorships are notoriously suspicious of entertainers, especially ones who comment on current affairs, however humourlessly, and yet this is one of the traditional roles that a court jester would fulfil. So at the start of the play Touchstone must be treading a fine line; he must make Duke Fredrick laugh - and indeed he seems to do just that: 'the roynish clown at whom so oft/ Your grace was wont to laugh' - but he must also prod at the bubble of this fragile new government without bursting it and being silenced forever by a paranoid new authority.
Bearing all that in mind makes Touchstone's escape to Arden with Rosalind and Celia both understandable and inevitable. But it is only later when Touchstone severs all links with the court by (temporarily) leaving Rosalind and Celia that he can enjoy his own journey. As long as he's 'one of the girls' keeping the princesses company and making them laugh he can never really grow up, but once he's set free in the forest he experiences a sort of crude 'rite of passage' with Audrey as the catalyst. In Arden he can enjoy all the liberties of humanity denied him by his position in court. Of course he is drawn back to court life by the end of the play but he's grown up and he's in love...well lust as least! His horizons have expanded. But how should he be played? Steven and I talked thorough a few ideas. He should certainly be mercurial and chameleon like; he'd need to be.
To survive in Fredrick's court he'd have to be all things to all men, responding to each situation appropriately to keep his head (quite literally). Perhaps he'd even have a collection of characters and voices that he could slip in and out of of; and that could easily spill over in the way that he relates to Corin or Audrey or William in the forest. There should certainly be some sort of play acting going on in front of Corin or Audrey to whom he is telling, no doubt, all manner of lies about his pedigree. As Jacques notes at the end: 'he hath been a courtier, he swears'.
There is also the problem of how to make sense of those long passages of text where Touchstone 'goes off on one' and strings long chains of thoughts and witticisms together out of thin air. We needed to create a character who liked the sound of his voice and the buzz of his own brain. Even outside the court when presumably he wasn't being paid to be 'witty' any longer he persists in playing with words and twisting ideas around. His exchange with Corin in Act 3, Scene 2 is full of convoluted lateral thinking and the encounter with William is verbal diarrhoea on a grand scale. It struck me that he was like a manic depressive who suffered periods of melancholy- when Jacques reports his encounter with Touchstone 'the motley fool' sounds far from happy - before bouncing through periods of mild mania. The flights of ideas, the energy of thought and the inability to shut up are all traits of manic episodes in a bi-polar mental illness. It is perhaps an actor's affectation to think of Shakespearian characterisation in this way, but it helped me to make sense if some of Touchstone's less easily motivated moments. A heightened libido can also be symptomatic of mania which certainly feeds in to Touchstone's attachment to Audrey.
In terms of how the character would look, the decision had already been taken by Steven, who was keen that I should be dressed in a traditional fool's outfit. That was fine by me. There are so many references in the text to 'motley fool' that it would be problematic and unhelpful not to wear the chequered coat and with that comes the three pronged hat with bells on the end all in vibrant red, green and yellow. In a sense it would help to give the audience an immediate visual reference point as to what Touchstone was in this world and anyway I've always liked long coats so I'd feel very happy in it - whatever the colours. In the end our designer, Ashley Martin-Davies, came up with a very striking and stylish outfit which seemed perfect to me. If Touchstone had to wear the fool's uniform he's enough of a snob to make sure he cut a dash in it.
And so, with another deep breath, we began rehearsal proper. My first session was on Act 1, Scene 2, my first scene (obviously enough). Steven's way of working begins with a good couple of hours just reading through the scene and discussing what is going on. Niamh Cusack, Rachel Joyce and I were keen that there should be a real 'girl's changing room' feeling to this scene between Touchstone and the princesses. Of course I felt immediately defeated by Touchstone's first exchange. All that stuff about pancakes and mustard - not exactly opening on a sure fire laugh. Steven was keen that we should concentrate on the situation. Touchstone is being sent to fetch Celia to her father - not his job. He's being used and abused by Duke Fredrick, probably to the delight of the other courtiers, which will deeply disgruntle the proud Touchstone. Steven also encouraged me to think the 'certain knight' that swore 'by his honour they were good pancakes and swore by his honour the mustard was naught' was actually Duke Fredrick himself, which added an extra dynamic to the scene as I was being rude about Celia's father. That way the scene began to take shape with the three chums having a bit of a falling out because Touchstone is so annoyed with the Duke. It also helped feed in to the story of the play itself with Celia being forced to examine her loyalties - does she side with her increasing disenfranchised friends or with her increasingly alienated father - and it shows Touchstone's disenchantment and grumpiness with the state he finds himself in. Then the trio can be reunited again seconds later as they all take great delight in ridiculing Monsieur Le Beau. My initial problem was that I felt a great pressure to come on and be funny! I was the comic after all, but the whole pancakes / mustard section simply doesn't work as a purely comic turn: it isn't funny enough for a start and the language is so opaque so early on in the play that a modern audience is going to find it very hard to listen to such an odd argument. With something else to play it freed me up to concentrate on what I was saying and why I was saying it. This all so bids ludicrously obvious as I write it now. Of course actors need to be thinking of the situation and motivation for what they are saying, but these famous Shakespearian roles can come with a lot of baggage attached. A lot of people seemed very keen to tell me how hilarious Roy Kinnear had been as Touchstone; how memorable Patrick Wymark; his scene-stealing Kenneth Brannagh; or Griff Rhys Jones in the movie version; how only a few years ago on the RST stage Mark Williams had received such glowing reviews in the part. I hadn't seen any of them (I'm sure they were all brilliant) but in my mind they hung like immovable monuments to great comic acting and to a wee boy frae Paisley coming to the Royal Shakespeare Company for the first time they were spectres that proved hard to banish. Of course the only way to exorcise these ghosts is to do your own version of this new part as you would any other, but I could feel the finger of history tapping on my inexperienced shoulder and the pressure was: 'be funny or sink!'
Meanwhile back in rehearsal Steven was hammering away at the text, picking us up on each mixed emphasis and every ignored alliteration point and slowly the ancient, often unwieldy language was beginning to come to life and make sense. It was very early on that we decided I should use my own accent in the part. He's a very much a 'one-off' character within the world of the play so why shouldn't he have a 'one-off' accent? And besides, if we were going to explore the idea of using different voices I'd be in a much better position if I started from my own. It seemed perfectly logical to me - I never ceased to be amazed in the coming months how much that attention that particular decision received. I think people thought I was making some great comment on the serfdom of a nation or something; it was simply me giving myself one less thing to worry about!
By the time we came to rehearse Touchstone's next scene, the escape to Arden, Steven's vision of the play was beginning to come in to focus. He'd been keen to allow things to develop slowly. (The longer rehearsal processes afforded at the RSC allow actors and directors a little more freedom than elsewhere, where deadlines and design requirements mean a lot of fundamental decisions have to be made before rehearsals begin, sometimes before a full cast has been assembled.) Steven had decided that we should be costumed fairly traditionally and in a basically neutral set, but other ideas were evolving gradually as we all reacted to the play day by day. As far as Arden was concerned, Steven was coming round to the idea that it should be a far from welcoming place, nothing like the utopia that Rosalind and Celia think they're heading for. So we came on stage in the midst of a snow storm. This allowed me to play to the hilt Touchstone's self-righteous indignation at being dragged along (even if underneath it all he's quite glad to be away from the court). So a line like 'Ay now am I in Arden, the more fool I. When I was at home I was in a better place, but travellers must be content' can positively drop with sarcasm. My biggest problem in this scene, and it's one that I've never really come to terms with, is that if Touchstone is genuinely miserable and disconsolate and unhelpful then where does one find the springboard to launch in to the whole 'Jane Smile' routine on line 42?
Steven suggested that Touchstone is taking it upon himself to cheer the princesses up but that doesn't seem to be in keeping with the grumpy complainer of only a few lines before. It also lands you with the earlier problem of trying to do a 'turn' and very little else. As a speech it is crammed full of of double entendres: 'I broke my sword upon a stone and bid him take that for coming a-night to Jane's smile' and obscure references like 'batler' and 'peascod' so there is a fairly technical exercise to be done in merely trying to help an audience follow all the things one is trying to communicate as well as trying to key into the rest of what's going on.
In the end u went for the idea that Silvius's pining for Phebe has triggered a genuine memory in Touchstone which he then relives as he retells it - fondly at first as he remembers Jane, and even with a smile: 'I remember the kissing of her batler and cow's dugs that her pretty chopt hands had milked' then bemusement 'I remember the wooing of a peascod instead of her', even reliving the tearful frustration of saying '"wear these for my sake"' before snapping out of his reverie to evaluate how ludicrous it all is: 'we that are true lovers run into strange capers' And that, I suppose, is the purpose of the speech - to illuminate to the ludicrousness of being in love so that the whole thing is also being used by Touchstone as a message to the absent Silvius and, more particularly, to Rosalind, warning them off all this romantic nonsense. I still don't feel entirely happy with how it works.
I'll probably be sitting in the bath in three years' time and I'll scream 'that's how I should have done that bit!', but for now I tinker away with it every night trying to make it fit its corners into a still round hole.
It's only rally after this scene that Touchstone cones into his own as he begins to enjoy his country life. In our production the weather changes and Arden becomes a much more magical, welcoming place. The little but exchange with Corin, the shepherd in Act Three, Scene Two seemed impenetrable at first. Steven was keen to see a battle of wits between the two, like a pair of music hall turns trying to outdo each other. The old pro coming up against the young pretender, if you like, as the countryside meets the court. Of course Touchstone thinks he'll walk away with it, but Corin is much more of a match for him than he'd anticipated. I started work on the scene by trying to throw everything at it. Touchstone became a spinning top chucking off silly voices, silly walks, even acrobatics to try and inject some life in what appeared to me a long, wordy and dry argument. Of course what I was doing was running scared of the words and not trusting Shakespeare. I was taken in hand by Cicely Berry, the RSC's world famous voice expert and all round guru who has an almost supernatural gift for sniffing out what actors need to help them find a way into something. She took Arthur Cox (playing Corin) and myself aside and stripped all the fireworks away and just made us investigate the arguments. I just listened to the brilliantly lucid Arthur and responded to what he said, the arguments began to make sense and the sparring between the two characters be and very real. Steven brought down to the front of the stage and sat us with our feet hanging over the front of the thrust so the whole scene began as a very low key chat (as Steven put it, an after dinner stroll through the woods with two chaps content in each other's company) until Touchstone starts to show off: 'In respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd's life, it is naught' and so on, then throws it over to Corin. 'Hast any philosophy in thee shepherd?' Only to find that the simple country man is more than a match for him. As we play the scene Arthur's Corin remains splendidly solid and unflappable, arching the occasional eyebrow at Touchstone's excesses. In our production, at least, whilst Touchstone has the last word, it is Corin who wins the battle. The only silly voice that remains is a dash of Ian Paisley on 'Then thou art damned'. I'm afraid I couldn't resist it!
Following this exchange cones Touchstone's last scene with Rosalind. Earlier on in rehearsal Niamh and I cooked up all manner of elaborate ideas about their relationship; that the reason ridicules Orlando's poems is due to his jealousy that Rosalind should be falling in love with someone else. Absolute rubbish of course: we tried for a while, but we were playing a subtext that simply didn't exist. The scene is more about Touchstone enjoying taking advantage of the fact that he can ridicule Rosalind and Orlando's affair whilst Rosalind is impotent to stop him, being dressed as the boy Ganymede in the presence of Corin. One nice touch that developed at the end of the scene was that I had a handful of poems torn off the trees and on the line 'You have said, but whether widely or no, let the forest judge' I tossed them in to the audience. Initially it was just a device to get them off stage but it actually seems to ask the audience to act as jury on it all and to evaluate all these different versions of 'love' that are about to pass before them.
From there until the end of the play Touchstone is concerned with wooing the shepherdess Audrey. Susanna Elliot-Knight is a brilliant Audrey and we both toiled long and hard together trying to make sense of their relationship. Does Audrey live Touchstone or does she just like the idea of marrying a rich bloke? Does Touchstone love Audrey or dies he just want to get his leg over at any cost? The fact I'd that Touchstone seems to have no clear idea of what he's after from one moment to the next. Certainly in their first scene together he tells Jacques that the vicar Oliver Martext: 'is not likely to marry me well; and not being well married, it will be a good excuse for me hereafter to leave my wife' , so this is not looking like someone ready to make a lifelong commitment, but then the very next time we see the 'happy' couple and Audrey is complaining that Martext would have done the job well enough, Touchstone calls him 'A most wicked Sir Oliver, Audrey, a most vile Martext' and proceeds to make a great deal of fuss at seeing off Audrey's previous boyfriend William when he comes to 'lay claim' to her.
I found the only way to deal with Touchstone's apparent contradictions through these last few scenes was to stop striving for the logical through-line and to play each moment as it arrives. After all, the evolution of any human relationship is far from linear and playing all the contradictions actually helps make their courtship more believable in my opinion. I don't think Touchstone is ever convinced that he wants to get married until Hymen casts her spell in the final scene and his indecision is spirited away.
In the first half of Act Five Touchstone and Audrey have two short scenes, sketches really, that add virtually nothing to the (admittedly slender) plot. Act Five, Scene One is really just an elaborate set up: Touchstone comes on and shows off in front of Audrey's boyfriend, Audrey's boyfriend is decidedly unimpressed, Touchstone is crushed and Audrey sorts it all out; Act Five, Scene Three is just an excuse for a song. In Shakespeare's day it would have given his comic the chance to do his turn and keep the groundlings happy, like a bit of music hall variety really. The cleverer we tried to be about it the harder it seemed to become. Act Five, Scene One is rather like a Monty Python sketch. I adopted a Terry Thomas-esque accent and the props department supplied me with a walking stick version of the tradition jester's stick so that Touchstone transforms himself in to a medieval 'hooray Henry'. He is not n his element throwing questions and witticisms at the simple William and as the scene goes on his fervour grows so by the time he gets to: 'He, sir, must marry this woman' he is positively flying. We passed the rest of the scene with William (Simeon Defoe) watching impassively as Touchstone's mania mounted so that by 'I will o'er-run thee with policy; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways' was dancing around him shrieking and threatening him with my walking stick, and with 'therefore tremble and depart' I was screaming in his face. Simeon coolly grabbed me by the shoulder and floored me with a head butt for a good bit of (hopefully) amusing bathos.
For most of the rehearsal Act Five, Scene Three had been reworked and edited down so that we dispensed with two singing pages and Touchstone and Audrey sang the song straight out front as a piece of pure music hall. I found it very useful to have that sort of up-front opportunity to develop a relationship with the audience but Steven decided after a few weeks that it clashed with the overall style of the production and put a spoke in the rhythm of the play, so with a week or so of rehearsal left we went back to the script and two of the actor's playing foresters (Nathaniel Duncan and Simon Westwood) were roped into the scene as the two singing pages. Ultimately, it seemed the correct decision to play the scene as written and by keeping it within the world of the play it allows the relationship with Audrey to develop a bit further. As the pages sang Audrey started to dance around, embarrassing Touchstone in front of these courtier singers, but then she came over and started flirting with him until he lost all self control as the song came to an end the couple we rolling around the stage together. The cynical Touchstine has been dragged kicking and screaming into living in the moment as the pages sing 'And therefore take the present time .. for love is crowned with the prime'.
So the couple mane their way into the final scene and the wedding. The whole sequence where Touchstone meets Duke Senior and goes through seven degrees of an argument is a bit of a tricky section to be met with at the end of a long play. It isn't Shakespeare's finest comic writing, several commentators have noted how it looks as if it were written fairly hurriedly, provably at a dress rehearsal when the company realised that the two boys playing Rosalind and Celia would need some time to get out of their disguises and in to their wedding finery. Again I felt this terrific pressure to be 'funny' - instant death to any comic invention. There is no plot to be moved on, it's simply a delay to the happy ending. I resisted the overwhelming temptation to panic and tried to find a simple way through the scene. It is, of course, an audition. Touchstone, with his new-found wife to support, will need a fort to jest in, so the discovery of a benevolent Duke in the forest is an opportunity he can't miss out on. Jacques acts as his feed, introducing him and promoting him to go into one of his routines. We played on this on the line 'I have had four quarrels, and like to have fought one' with Touchstone madly signalling to Jacques out of sight of the Duke until he tumbled what Touchstone was getting at and gave him his cue - 'And how was that ta'en up?' - allowing Touchstone to launch into his party piece on 'The Lie Direct' (whilst excusing his prospective bride as 'an ill - favoured thing, sir, but mine own'). I resisted the temptation to smother the 'Seven Degrees' speech with comic business or vocal gymnastics, firstly because I can't really do all that anyway and secondly because the speech is quite hard to listen to and I rest that I'd an audience were distracted by any gimmickry it would probably only help to make it sound like so much gibberish. So I concentrated, again with the invaluable help of Cicily Berry and Barbara Houseman of the RSC's voice department, on making it as intelligible as possible. I tried to give each of the seven degrees a different attitude and an increasing level of seriousness as the argument hots up. Jacques became the courtier in the story as I told it to the Duke advancing toward Jacques in each 'degree' then referring back to the Duke to explain what was happening: 'This is called the Reply Churlish' etc. By the time I reached the Lie Direct I was right by Jacques and it was very stern and full portent; then with Jacques next line 'And how oft did you say his beard was not well cut' I would let it all drop to a cowardly dismissal of the who,D thing 'I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial, not he durst not give me the Lie Durect. And so we measured swords and parted.' The next speech is the final thing that Touchstone says in the whole play and it's a perfect example of his convoluted, lateral-thinking logic. After listing the Seven Degrees again he says: 'All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too, with an "if". I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them though but of an "if": as, "if you said so then I said so", and they shook hands and swore brothers. Your "if" is the only peace-maker; much virtue in "if".' I always feel a great sense of achievement when the audience laughs at this bit because it means they've followed the circuitous arguments to the end and tuned in to Touchstone's bizarre way of thinking - and because they are genuinely responding to four hundred year old jokes!
The plays ending is very difficult with Hymen appearing as a fairly crude deus ex machina to sellotape all these dodgy marriages together. It's hard to make something like that believable for a modern audience and in our production in Stratford Steven took the very bold step of having Hymen as an older woman entering the stage from the auditorium dressed as a member of the audience in modern day clothing. It was certainly an a disorientating moment for the audience and it proved a very controversial decision. With hindsight it probably didn't entirely work (indeed for the London run Hyman was transformed in to an Elizabethan elemental figure who arrived through the back wall of the set) but Steven's intention was very valid: he wanted to emulate the shock of whatnot would actually be like for a god to appear to these characters and really to play with the frontiers of reality like that. It seems to mean to that Hymen must be a supernatural creature rather than Corin or another character in disguise as some directors have chosen to play it, because she does some fairly supernatural things to these couples: I can't believe Silvius and Phebe would ever get together otherwise and as for Celia and Oliver being 'heart to heart' - they've only just met and Oliver was a total bastard half an hour earlier! One of the lady pieces of interpretation in our production cones Touchstone presents Jacques with a skull just before he heads off to be rid of all the jollity at the new court. A lot of people have asked me why it happens and in truth I can't entirely enlighten them. Steven asked me to do it very early on in rehearsal: he had an idea about showing Jacques to be an elderly Hamlet - 'Alas poor Yorick', and so on - but to me it became about other things too. Touchstone is handing over cynicism and disillusionment to the only other character in the play who exhibits them, whilst he paddles off in to the sunset for a but if idealised wedded bliss with Audrey. It's also a way of saying: 'sod off you grumpy old git!' One student who I spoke to had another opinion; she said: 'well everyone else is getting married off and having fun - it give Jacques someone to talk to.'
We've been playing this production now for about eight months and we've done around one hundred performances. As I write this we are about two months in to our run in London with another four months ahead of us and around forty five performances still to do. The production continues to develop and move on and I'm still discovering new ways of playing scenes or more effective ways of saying lines. The ghosts of RSC past still come to visit but they feel slightly more benevolent now: these parts have been being re-interrupted for four hundred year and will continue to be so for as long as there is theatre. I can't hope to do any of it definitively, just 'my' way, and when I realised that I was very liberated. I've never performed any part this many times but yet I'm nowhere near to getting bored yet - but that's usually a sign of good writing. I've tried to be as loyal to Shakespeare's words as possible rather than try to embellish them with a lot of comic business - like I've said I can't do all that anyway - and I've been really delighted with is how much audiences have actually laughed, not tittered knowingly at their own knowledge of what a peascod is or how many Elizabethan double entendres they can count, but because the situations and the words are genuinely funny. I'm not an obvious choice to play the part and I was terrified at the prospect but I've gradually discovered that Shakespeare's clowns are funny... And I never thought I'd say that ten months ago.