There’s plenty of music but insufficient musicality to David Lan’s production of “As You Like It,” which brings Shakespeare’s most shimmering comedy to the West End and then coarsens it so that even Helen McCrory’s potentially sublime Rosalind seems to be pushing too hard. Cast is a grab bag of comedians (Irishman Sean Hughes), TV names (Reece Shearsmith) and tabloid “it” girls (Sienna Miller) whose performance styles rarely coalesce. Newcomers to the Bard may lap up the phallic jokes and musical-comedy leanings, leaving others to ponder a play that here could be retitled “Loves Labored — and Lost.”
The staging marks the belated arrival in the commercial sphere of both Young Vic a.d. Lan and McCrory, who has shone brightly at virtually every nonprofit theater around town (most recently in the Donmar’s “Old Times”).
But though the production begins promisingly enough, with a stage bereft of anything except a few of the musical instruments that will go on to guide the evening, Lan soon loses his way as he attempts to navigate the fraught landscape of ardor and affection that is the true forest inhabited in this play.
Setting proceedings in post-WWII France may allow a few visual jokes in Richard Hudson’s design, as if Rosalind and her “pretty little coz” Celia (Miller, in her professional stage debut) were denizens of the same wintry cafe society that produced Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet the affinity between Ardennes and Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden matters even less than the tang of Gilbert Becaud in Tim Sutton’s original score: Such embellishments scarcely count when the play’s questing heart is left unexplored.
Lan has certainly raised the noise level on some of Shakespeare’s more quizzical ruminations on the arrows of Eros. No sooner has Rosalind announced that she “can do strange things” than McCrory is huskily shifting her voice — disguised in the character’s new cloak as the shepherd Ganymede — to talk Orlando (a beefy if often bemused Dominic West) through his courtship of the very beloved he fails to recognize in front of him. In Orlando’s absence, this Rosalind reacts as if she is being driven nearly mad by a disguise that runs counter to the free-flowing arteries of love — a world of “sighs and tears” transformed this time around into one of swooning, shouting and clenched fists.
The delicate melancholia of the play was sharply etched by Peter Hall’s recent career-capping take starring his daughter Rebecca. Lan and Hudson posit a similarly scrublike lack of ostentation to the play’s visual trajectory, saving any vibrant burst of green for the surge of couplings toward the end. But the play only bursts into emotional life when McCrory regains her own naturally smoky (and ravishing) voice and abandons all pretense: The ache of the sexual urge that cannot announce itself is virtually absent here.
In its place is lots of business and unfunny japery (Hughes and Shearsmith take turns vying for worst offender on that front), alongside copious Gallic-flavored musical interludes. Those, in turn, give Clive Rowe a chance to hit the sorts of high notes not usually achieved by Duke Senior, Rosalind’s father. Not to be outdone, Nigel Richards appears near the start as a snarling Duke Frederick, then returns in a lime suit as a song-and-dance Hymen, looking as if he stepped out of “Guys and Dolls.”
“All the world’s a stage,” this play famously tells us (Shearsmith just about gets away with his borderline camp delivery of Jaques’ celebrated soliloquy), so “As You Like It” probably leaves more room than most Shakespeare plays for a degree of showmanship. The problem is less with that impulse per se than with a dulling of the play’s uniquely kaleidoscopic emotional palette, as if impetuosity and volume alone could have the same effect. (The sweet-faced Miller, her hands in perpetual motion, on several occasions screams her lines for no apparent purpose.)
Even Rosalind’s farewell to the audience here becomes a showy vocal display from a beaming McCrory, who looks enchanting in the polka-dotted dress she dons for the character’s final conjuring act.
But this play’s real magic lies in its journey toward the hard-won love that lies within any of us lucky enough to be enraptured by the Rosalinds of this world. In Lan’s “As You Like It,” you hear loudly of that love and see its effects in overly emotive action. But feel it — no.