The week in theatre: As You Like It; Tambo & Bones; Stumped – review

The dare of its casting meant that Omar Elerian’s production was trumpeted long before it opened. Most of the actors in As You Like It are over 70. Actually, it is far from the first time that expected ages in Shakespeare plays have been upturned. Siân Phillips was a rapt Juliet at Bristol Old Vic when she was in her late 70s. Ten years ago Vanessa Redgrave, then 76, and James Earl Jones, 82, shambled rather than fired each other up in Much Ado About Nothing. In 2021, Ian McKellen fascinated in Hamlet at 82, though the production crumbled around him.

Elerian’s staging lifts off – against the odds, you might think, not least because there is an awful lot of chatter in the play about characters’ mothers and fathers. The action is purposefully, subtly refashioned. Set in a rehearsal room, with actors in jeans (dungarees for Rosalind/Ganymede), the cast are presented as gathering to remember a production they created when young. Their revisiting activates a pulse in the play itself. The first words are “As I remember…” I had never before realised how laden the speeches are with memories: of old feuds and friendships and lost relatives, of nearly foundering romance.

Amid the reworking, the additions are as striking as the cuts. James Hayes’s very funny, freely ad-libbing Touchstone (sometimes in shorts) points dolefully to his cone hat, as if from a cracker: “No expense spared.” Geraldine James, throughout elegantly at ease as Rosalind, delivers a very well-turned new epilogue, written by Robin Soans, which sticks up for love at all ages, even for those with “shrunken shanks”. The epilogue is a speech that often shines with the surprise of self-assertion. James and Soans made me wonder if it should not regularly be remade for different Rosalinds: the character has so many facets; she is the most crystalline of Shakespeare’s heroines.

This is the best-spoken Shakespeare I have heard for ages: unfussy, confident, using the rhythm to spring new inflections. As Celia, Maureen Beattie – oh how she groans when her cousin goes over the top – is naturally comic. Malcolm Sinclair remakes Orlando: more angry than usual, more truly love-struck, interestingly sad. Among the few younger actors, Mogali Masuku (known to me previously only as Noluthando in The Archers) is particularly expressive.

This is Shakespeare as I like him: enchanting because courtier, clown and shepherdess collude in a tangle of melancholy, intoxication and mockery. It conjures mood from sound: the songs, with music by Will Gregory, make the weather. It is fluid. In a lovely shift, designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita moves the closing sequence into a misty region of youthful fairytale.

Such is the theatrical radiation of Waiting for Godot that anyone who puts two men and a tree on stage is winking at an audience, signalling theatrical concerns, absurdity, suspended animation. (Two women and a bush not so much.)

Tambo & Bones (2022), by the US poet and playwright Dave Harris, plugs into this power in the first of its three unflinching scenes evoking the history of black Americans and the white gaze. Two down-at-heel chaps under a stiff theatrical tree lark and lounge in topper and bowler while a banjo plays offstage. They are broke: men of colour obliged to appeal to a white audience for sustenance. “I didn’t know I was a minstrel,” says Rhashan Stone’s Tambo.

Leaping to the present, they are glitzy, wealthier but still troubled: limber, eloquent rappers disputing how much they should lecture, how much exult. They are still obliged to entertain. In a final flash to a far future they are in a desolate, robot-ridden place, possibly on the other side of a mass extinction. The conclusion – which hinges on having to confront the reality of other people – is not encouraging.

Matthew Xia, AKA DJ Excalibah, directs an evening of skidding movements and punchy moments that hang together on the thread of an argument about exploitative capitalism without exactly developing. There is, though, no doubt about the strength of Stone’s and Daniel Ward’s performances: Stone, furrowed, quizzical, loquacious; Ward (Bones), bustling, frisky and entrepreneurial (“Is it gay that I find myself attractive?”). They compel, even as they warn against finding them entertaining.

Stumped features Godot and its creator directly. Shomit Dutta’s new playlet is based on the charming wheeze of putting cricket enthusiasts Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter together – sparring, word-spinning as they wait to go into bat. With peculiar timing, the play opened on the day it was reported that the world of cricket is riddled with racism, sexism and classism. I don’t know why anyone should be surprised at what is only an exacerbated condition of the rest of the world, but it is a good moment to be reminded of the elegance and power of the game, its genial, intellectually teasing aspects.

Dutta, who used to captain Gaieties CC, to which Pinter belonged for 40 years, opens with agility, lightly echoing the speech of both men. Their epoch and their lack of resolution are evoked in Mark Aspinall’s music, fugitive gurgles on clarinet, alto sax and double bass. David Woodhead’s design exquisitely captures stilled moments in a gold frame at the back of the stage containing miniature settings: a tiny cricket pavilion; the station at Adelstrop where the poet Edward Thomas observed: “No one left and no one came.”

Yet Guy Unsworth’s production too quickly evaporates into self-conscious absurdity. As Beckett, Stephen Tompkinson, who pulls off a strange physical resemblance to the playwright but lacks his heron-like stooping composure, is dominant, in control of the play’s vocabulary and pacing. Andrew Lancel gets the timbre of Pinter’s voice at its most stentorian but holds it there throughout, missing the silky insinuation, the comic hovering. The gangster glimmer and up-close invasiveness of Pinter’s plays is off the pitch.

Star ratings (out of five)
As You Like It
Tambo & Bones ★★★
Stumped ★★★

  • As You Like It is at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 5 August

  • Tambo & Bones is at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, until 15 July

  • Stumped is at Hampstead theatre, London, until 22 July