Barbara Hodgson previews a memorable production of the “best rom-com ever written” ahead of its return to Newcastle in the new RSC season
In a wrestling ring bare-chested fighters get down and dirty while, for a girl watching from the sidelines, it’s clearly a case of lust at first sight.
It’s like those film scenes that herald “a significant moment” when everything goes into slow-motion, but here it’s the heart-stopping first meeting between central characters Orlando and Rosalind caught up the hurly burly of Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It.
It’s one of several striking scenes in this very physical, emotionally-charged new production by the Royal Shakespeare Compan which, thanks to convincing lead performances, manages to inject a measure of believability into the central love story that drives the madcap plot.
Playing the love-struck young pair are Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon who appeared together in 2011’s King John - with Alex making an acclaimed RSC debut in the title role - directed by Maria Aberg; the three-way creative partnership a success being repeated here, with Aberg at the helm of the memorable show.
“We got on so well last time,” says Alex who’s taking a break in the RSC’s hometown of Stratford from a non-stop schedule that sees him play three roles - two a day - this season: dashing around the Forest of Arden as Orlando; getting to grips with the lesser-known role of Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well; then giving wise counsel as Horatio in Hamlet (having previously played Laertes in the play in 2009 opposite Jude Law in the title role).
“The three shows this year are very different in tone,” says the Cambridge-born actor who is particularly enjoying being back on stage with Pippa as a sparring partner.
“I think her Rosalind is one of the great Shakespeare performances of our time,” adds Alex who, looking younger than his 34 years, captures in Orlando the passion and energy of youth – that feeling when “love feels happy, you almost feel sick!”.
He adds: “Pippa and I work so well together. We didn’t have to work to find the chemistry – it’s one of those special things; we spark off each other and inspire each other.
“That feeling on stage doesn’t come along a lot.”
In fact, everyone in it seems to be having a ball. RSC regular Greg Hicks, part of the RSC’s very first Newcastle season in 1977 and playing the King of France here, says it’s “enormous fun”.
He adds: “It’s full of holes and contradictions and narratively it’s ludicrous but it’s got some wonderful floods of language in it and beautiful pieces of human observation.”
They’re complemented by evocative music which has been specially written by Brit Award-winning Laura Marling and is played live on stage by a pair of musicians, changing pace as the stilted mood at court gives way to the abandon of the Forest of Arden and we enter a rustic world with a feel of traditional Old England where Rosalind, disguised as a man, is at the centre of the romantic confusion.
“Laura Marling’s music fits that,” says Alex.
After the play’s opening scenes with their atmosphere of female oppression as marionette-like women in cocktail dresses make mechanical dance moves, watched and seemingly controlled by men in suits, sipping drinks and smoking cigarettes, it’s anything goes as freedom reigns in the forest.There’s everything from country folk and animal skulls to campers in woolly jumpers, hats and walking boots, one carrying Orlando’s message of a bloody handkerchief
inside the plastic protective covering of an Ordnance Survey map. And there’s a touch of the circus about the fast-paced action, from the wrestling match ringmaster to court fool Touchstone’s clown-like nose.
We invest so much in the two main characters that we happily go with the madness of it all and, after all their trials and tribulations, we want to see the besotted young lovers finally get together.
Alex says: “It’s one of the best rom-coms ever written - and it was written a few hundred years ago.”
A joyous wedding party scene with a folk festival feel, beneath trees hung with fairylights, is a deserved happy ending.
“Orlando and Rosalind find answers in each other,” says Alex. “There’s sexual attraction and chemistry but something deeper than that as well.
“You want them to get together, they’ve been through a lot.”
Not least physically, but it seems the actor is taking those bouts of bare-knuckle action and rough and tumble in his stride.
He’s used to being kept on his toes as father to his two-year-old daughter with director wife Amelia Sears, with whom he runs independent production company SEArED in London. He has the family staying with him in Stratford during the play’s run before it transfers this October to Newcastle. He’s very excited to be heading for the North East.
“You feed off audiences,” he says. “I feel more tired after doing Hamlet as it takes you to a much darker place.”
:: The RSC season at the Theatre Royal starts with Hamlet (October 18-26). As You Like It then runs from October 29 to November 2 and All’s Well That Ends Well from November 5-9. Visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk or call 08448 112 121.
:: Read October's edition of Culture here - http://bit.ly/culturemagazine