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Preview: As You Like It, Theatre Royal

THEY say there is more than one way to skin a rabbit, but actor Geoffrey Freshwater, playing a shepherd in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It, demonstrated one of them in Stratford at the weekend.

Royal Shakespeare Company's As You Like It

THEY say there is more than one way to skin a rabbit, but actor Geoffrey Freshwater, playing a shepherd in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It, deftly demonstrated one of them as the interval audience filed back to its seats in Stratford at the weekend.

While not out of place in an imagined Forest of Arden, where much of As You Like It is set, the scene has caused a little consternation among theatre marketing people in the North East.

Audiences can be fickle and on-stage butchery is hardly a common cause of auditorium unrest – not like nudity or strong language – even if the context justifies it.

"Michael [Boyd, director] just wanted to give a taste of the reality of rural life," Katy Stephens, who plays Rosalind in the play, explained before going on stage.

"Geoffrey was trained by a butcher in Stratford, added Jonjo O’Neill, cast as Orlando, who expresses his love for Rosalind with lines of poetry hung in all the trees.

Geoffrey, Katy, Jonjo and the controversial (as I suppose we must call it) rabbit-skinning scene are all heading our way. As You Like It, in Michael Boyd’s exuberant, thoroughly enjoyable production, will open the 2009 RSC season at Newcastle Theatre Royal on October 20.

Inevitably, there will be those (vegetarians, rabbit lovers) who might give it a miss and there will be those who wonder why Michael Boyd didn’t make life easier for those selling tickets by having the shepherd shelling some peas. It got a round of applause in Stratford on Saturday, although a mother was seen taking her daughter out, returning to their seats when it was all over.

But the actors were supportive of the scene and it is cleverly done, Freshwater’s newfound skill displayed in gruff, matter-of-fact style while the fastidious body language of the court fool, Touchstone, a townie new to the forest, makes light of it.

Touchstone, incidentally, is played by Richard Katz, whose comic contributions to the current RSC season take Shakespearean fooling to new heights.

It’s appropriate that Boyd’s production will open the RSC Newcastle season since he had special responsibility for it before landing the top job of artistic director.

Since it was launched with great fanfare in 1977, the Stratford-based company’s annual North East residency has been a key part of its year – and a highlight for North East theatre-goers.

But if seasoned RSC watchers talk wistfully of seasons past, when 10 productions would fill up three Newcastle theatres for a couple of months, there are signs that normal service is being resumed.

The dominant landmark in Stratford since the 1930s has been the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Today it is even more imposing, encased in scaffolding and surrounded by bold artists’ impressions of what it will look like when it reopens late next year after a multi-million-pound transformation.

Asked for a progress report, Boyd said with a smile: "On time, on budget, no news story. It’s great." But this is good news. The first full RSC season of productions in the new Stratford theatre will be in 2011 when all three of its venues are back in action.

This will greatly enhance the company’s scope and, hopefully, mean more Newcastle-bound productions.

In October, As You Like It will be followed onto the Theatre Royal stage by The Winter’s Tale, which I also saw at the weekend and can heartily recommend. With Greg Hicks as jealous monarch Leontes and Kelly Hunter as Queen Hermione, whom he wrongly suspects of adultery, it is in good hands.

Director David Farr ensures a fast pace and a crystal clear telling of the tale. Lucy Bailey’s production of Julius Caesar makes it a Theatre Royal threesome in early November. I haven’t seen it but the mesmerising Hicks also has the title role.

One of the great hits of the season is likely to be The Comedy of Errors, an hilarious, frenetic, pared down production aimed at families. It will tour North East schools and have one performance at the Theatre Royal on November 7.

Do get tickets if you have kids. I saw it next to a giggling 10-year-old and thought, what a great introduction to Shakespeare. On the other hand, I hope he doesn’t expect all his plays to be like this.

Northern Stage plays host this year to two new plays. Days Of Significance, by Roy Williams, begins a national tour there on October 21 while A Tender Thing has its world premiere there on October 29.

Ben Power is 28 today but A Tender Thing is his vision – an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with two protagonists in their seventies. You will read a lot more about this in coming weeks.

Michael Boyd was hinting at a new era for the RSC’s Newcastle season, with more collaborations and premieres.

He looked ahead to the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, coinciding with the London Olympics, promising a "three-centre festival" (Stratford, London, Newcastle) and new relationships between the RSC and amateur theatre companies.

Roxana Silbert, who spent part of her childhood in Newcastle after coming to Britain from Argentina, has been put in charge of the North East season and spoke of new education initiatives and of collaborations with Live Theatre and other North East companies.

"My long-term vision is to create work which comes out of Newcastle and feeds the RSC as a whole," she said.

It all sounded very positive. Tickets for this season’s RSC plays are on sale at the Theatre Royal –08448 11 21 21 – or Northern Stage – (0191) 230- 5151.


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