Spoken Word

Shakespeare is hard to pull off even when you're not hyperventilating

In one of the most expressive moments of Peter Hall's As You Like It, Rosalind (Rebecca Hall) slips a gold chain from around her neck and offers it as a gift to Orlando (Dan Stevens). The young nobleman is so discombobulated by the girl's tender gesture that all the color drains from his face; Rosalind, for her part, turns as red as the dress she's wearing. Neither character utters a word, yet what passes between them is profoundly moving.

Over a career spanning more than 50 years, Sir Hall -- founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a former director of the U.K.'s National Theatre -- has been one of the most vocal guardians of Shakespearean verse. Railing against "naturalistic" performances of the Bard's plays, in which actors mumble their speeches, stress the wrong syllables, or (horror of horrors) ignore the ends of lines by running them together, the esteemed British director believes (and owes much of his reputation to this belief) that actors should pay strict attention to the rhythm and meter of the original poetry. Given Hall's obsession with Shakespeare's language, it's therefore somewhat surprising to discover that the most engaging parts of his production of As You Like It are the bits in which the actors stay silent.

Written around 1600, Shakespeare's bittersweet comedy about the transformative power of love fairly o'erflows with gorgeous poetry. Sitting in the theater listening to a seasoned actor like Philip Voss pronounce, in his Cadbury baritone, that "all the world's a stage" is worth the price of admission alone. The lighthearted interpretation of the play's many songs, such as "Under the Greenwood Tree" and "It Was a Lover and His Lass," also offers great pleasure. Yet because this work contains some of the writer's most overquoted lines -- I've even seen Jaques' "Seven Ages of Man" speech used in bastardized form in a Garfield cartoon -- and many of his most oblique puns and convoluted rhetorical digressions, its text presents a challenge for actor and director alike. This turns out to be a particularly unfortunate state of affairs for Rebecca Hall, who's encumbered with the biggest part.

Rebecca Hall (Rosalind) and Dan Stevens (Orlando).
Nobby Clark
Rebecca Hall (Rosalind) and Dan Stevens (Orlando).

Reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic have been foaming at the mouth over Hall's performance as Rosalind, repeatedly describing the willowy 22-year-old daughter of the director as the finest actor to have played the part since Vanessa Redgrave donned doublet and hose in 1961. Certainly, Hall is enchanting in the role, all limpid gaze and gangly grace. Plus she looks great in pants. She gives a bouncing, physical performance, measuring arrogant prankster and coy teenager in equal amounts. Her face, with its big eyes and full lips, registers as many emotions over the course of a single scene as there are types of weather on a typical San Francisco day, often expertly revealing the true feelings that lurk below the sparkling surface of her character's playful words. Yet after three hours of listening to this undoubtedly promising young actor bushwhack her way through the dense forest of Rosalind's lines, all I could think about was how much damage she might be doing to herself in the process.

In her book Speaking Shakespeare, the acclaimed speech coach Patsy Rodenburg writes, "You can often observe actors working so hard with their breath but not getting anywhere because the breath isn't supporting the voice with the appropriate muscles." From the moment Hall steps onstage dressed in her bodiced crimson dress, her voice sounds hollow and rather nasal. The words seem to come from her neck rather than from lower down in her chest and abdomen, as any vocal coach worth a phoneme would tell you they should. By the second half of the play, Hall appears to be struggling to catch her breath. Far from offending her director dad by running lines together, the end of many a perfectly deciphered pentameter or bit of prose is marked by a loud and asthmatic wheeze, as if, in the words of Rodenburg, Hall is "trying to propel [her]self through the water with splayed fingers -- all splash and little movement." Such hyperventilation cannot be good for Hall's health. It's also profoundly distracting.

It's not all the actor's fault. The production's use of microphones doesn't help. I've seen Shakespeare done all sorts of ways (there's even a nude Macbeth lurking in my closet), but this is the first -- and, hopefully, the last -- time I've ever seen an indoor production of the Bard miked. The local publicity rep tells me that microphones are employed to help American audiences better decode the British actors' words; unfortunately, the amplification tampers with the natural quality of the voices. Funnily enough, even with the aural aids, some of the performances are still difficult to decipher: Playing two roles, James Laurenson gives a lusty rendition of the banished Duke Senior, but his turn as Senior's usurping brother, Duke Frederick, is mumbled to near unintelligibility.

Maybe it's because San Francisco audiences are catching the tail end of the production, which originated at the Theatre Royal in Bath, England, way back in August 2003, went on a U.K. tour, then visited various U.S. cities before spluttering across the finish line here. But the nonverbal elements of Sir Hall's production prove themselves more resistant to the ravages of long and exhausting months on the road than the verbal. Rebecca Callard's Celia is a case in point. Because the character of Rosalind's sidekick spends so much time onstage and yet says comparatively very little, playing the role can be extremely difficult. Callard rises to the challenge admirably. While Celia's reedy companion stalks about the stage, chewing people's ears off and spitting out their hearts, Celia's silence doesn't mute her feelings. Whether slumped in boredom or furrow-browed with fury, Callard delivers a physicality that provides a much-needed foil to Rosalind's rantings.

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