If Shakespeare hadn’t written the character of Orlando, British playwright John Osborne might have invented the version of him now onstage at the Ahmanson. As played by Dan Stevens, a riveting new actor, Orlando becomes a combination of Elizabethan hero and Osborne’s angry young man of the 1950s, and the roaring aggression he projects in the opening scene gives “As You Like It” a searingly intense edge. Much praise has been heaped on the interpretation of Rosalind supplied by Rebecca Hall (director Peter Hall’s daughter), which implies that Stevens’ Orlando is a subsidiary character caught in her floodlights. Stevens, in fact, more than holds his own, giving the production a welcome balance.
What makes Stevens’ portrayal so affecting, beyond his ability to run the gamut from rage to misty-eyed romanticism, is his knack for transforming familiar speeches so they sound fresh and new. He takes risks with every line and gesture, never becomes actorish and appears to be discovering material rather than simply reciting it.
The show begins with a jolt when Orlando nearly strangles his self-centered brother, Oliver (Freddie Stevenson), for the latter’s neglect and refusal to hand over an inheritance. This leads to a grippingly staged wrestling match engineered by Oliver, pitting Orlando against menacing muscle man Charles (James Crossley, ruggedly powerful) and one who looks forward happily to breaking bones. When Orlando unexpectedly wins the match, he connects with Hall’s smitten Rosalind. Much of this is established without words, and the actors create immediate chemistry.
Hall’s formidable height lifts her out of the ingenue category, and a bright red dress she wears adds to her statuesque glamour. She has the force to confront evil Duke Frederick (James Laurenson) when he orders her to “go or die,” and she’s adept at conveying affection for her best friend and cousin, Celia (Rebecca Callard, diminutive in size but a large presence).
Hall’s speech has a stylized lilt and rhythm suited to Shakespeare, but her register can rise and remain uneasily high. Her nervous line readings often have a hesitant, affected awkwardness; she deliberately plays against the traditionally confident attitude usually taken with her part, but it doesn’t quite work, because Hall’s stature and persona have an inherently dominant quality.
This problem becomes increasingly acute when her Rosalind pretends to be a boy who must sustain a relationship with Orlando, all the while concealing her true feminine identity. She remains so imposingly herself that it’s difficult to believe Orlando wouldn’t see beyond her disguise. We have to remind ourselves that the story isn’t grounded in reality, in order to accept and string along with the deception.
John Gunter’s costumes are a striking blend of period and contemporary, and his atmospheric forest set, with its enormous, looming trees, furnishes a perfect background for the performers to attack their roles.
Director Hall (who created the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 and became director of the Royal National Theater in 1973) sees to it that the part of Oliver is nuanced and detailed, ensuring that Oliver’s highly improbable transition from malevolent manipulator to Orlando’s loyal, devoted friend is believable.
Stevenson does wonders with a playful moment, in which his arms inadvertently land on Rosalind’s breasts and he realizes her actual gender.
The director is equally successful bringing out James Laurenson’s versatility in two parts — as callous Duke Frederick and as the banished duke who fled to the Forest of Arden after Frederick usurped his kingdom.
Robin Hood-style sequences in the forest with the exiled Duke and his band of jovial followers are entertaining, if lengthy. Composer Mick Sands’ delightful music enlivens these sections and wards off any threat of tedium.
Production’s most farcical figures — lovesick shepherd Silvius (David Birkin), who lusts after Phoebe (Charlotte Parry), and Touchstone (Michael Siberry), a jester involved with goat herder Audrey (Janet Greaves) — have an idiosyncratic, human appeal. Touchstone, the wittiest character in the piece, makes unforgettable noises of disgust when Orlando writes insipid rhymes about Rosalind and plasters them on every tree in sight.