William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, like many of his comedies, has plot lines around mistaken identity and gender disguise, as well as reinstating the disenfranchised and rewarding true love. With its complicated narrative highlighting human folly, the major theme of the play is love in all its forms – love at first sight, sexual love, unrequited love, paternal love (and, in this production, maternal love too), plus the love of siblings and of servants for masters. It also explores deeper themes of usurpation and justice, of reconciliation and forgiveness, and the joys of living a pastoral rather than an urban life.
Director Damien Ryan has chosen to present the play predominantly for laughs; fun and at times joyous, this is ultimately quite shallow. This version entails gratuitous business, often distracting, adding little to the storyline. A case in point is when the cast takes on the role of Audrey’s goatherd, with some amusing animal antics, but this does nothing to enhance the story. Dramatic high-octane scenes are often delivered at a ferocious pace, glossing over key narrative, thus missing much of the work’s intelligence and gentle humour.
Scenically, the court scene and Oliver’s house are represented by a backcloth of a medieval-styled tapestry with hunting scenes. The usurping Duke Ferdinand is here played by a woman – making her the Duchess, sister to the banished Duke and therefore mother to Celia and aunt to Rosalind. She is authoritatively played by Helen Cassidy. In her anger at the disappearance of her daughter and niece, the Duchess angrily rips the cloth down to reveal the Forest of Arden behind, though here we are given a bleak vista – a rocky landscape resembling the Australian desert, not the magical forest that Shakespeare envisioned.
Presumably, due to production requirements, once the curtain is removed the play continues solely in the forest. The remaining interior scenes in the court and Oliver’s house are therefore played out of sequence and move confusingly in advance of the forest scenes, changing both the play’s structure and timeline.
Stylistically, there is a strange mismatch of clothing and set design from designer, Emma White. This ranges from medieval castle to outback Australia, period Elizabethan and contemporary court clothing to tattered rags and bushranger outfits. It is not particularly distracting, but fails to present a clear vision for the production. For the most part, David Murray’s lighting design adds little in creating interesting stage pictures.
All credit to a cast of actors who work hard to deliver the lines and complexities of the text. For the most part the doubling of roles works, though it becomes difficult in the final scene when Celia, also playing Phebe, needs to marry two different men at the same time. It works slickly at the end of Jaques’ famous ‘all the world’s a stage’ speech, when he dons his hat as Adam, gaining a round of applause.
Shakespeare’s Fool is a character that modern audiences may find hard to comprehend. And in Touchstone we have a clown whose use of colloquial period language, while clever and witty, is particularly obscure. As played by Hannah Raven, the character is ambiguous. Dressed as a woman, her opening pantomime with the Duchess in the Court scene is at odds with the play’s text. She later reverts to male attire with traditionally female attributes. Raven does her best with this ill-defined character, keeping high energy levels and a very fast patter throughout.
As Rosalind, Emma Wright gives a delightful, passionate performance as a playful young woman sharing secrets with her cousin, Celia. Disguised as the boy Ganymede, her subsequent games with Orlando, with whom she has fallen in love, are well-executed, apart from the speed of her spoken text. Additionally, on the night this reviewer attended a wardrobe malfunction with an annoying hat, presumably to hide her long hair, made a nonsense of the disguise.
Courtney Cavallaro plays Celia with enormous conviction and spirit, and is a marvellous foil to Rosalind. She is a fine actor and her portrayal of Phebe, as a tough, hard-hitting cowgirl with hat, boots and whip, is clever and very funny. She suffers, however, from speaking her lines exceedingly quickly. By contrast the Silvius of Davis Dingle, her smitten lover, is first-rate with every word crystal clear.
Andrew Hearle is a suitably love-smitten Orlando, with good attention to text and narrative, while Philippe Klaus gives a solid performance as his brother, Oliver de Bois.
Helen Cassidy swaps easily from Duchess to the country wench, Audrey, in the forest scenes with a believable characterisation. As Audrey, she also delivers many of Corin’s lines, a role that has been cut.
Colin Smith plays four roles, with a distinctive voice that does not change its timbre. As the banished Duke, his soft and pleasant manner lacks power and authority. Andrew Buchanan’s Jaques, adviser to the Duke and an enigmatic and melancholy character, is played as another fool, with his mix of wisdom and trite remarks. As Adam, Orlando’s old servant, Buchanan is more authentic.
New compositions have been made for the major songs, including ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’, ‘Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind’, ‘What Shall He Have That Killed the Deer’ and ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass‘. Composer Alec Steedman gives us an interesting mix of pop, folk, country and western, and even bluegrass music. He plays violin and is the main singer. Cast members both sing and contribute a variety of instruments, while coming out of character to face the audience, giving their collective delivery a distinctive communal feel.
All in all, this is a confusing and clunky production lacking clarity of vision or purpose. It concentrates on comic interludes and extraneous business to maximise laughter. The reorganisation of the structure and deletion of some characters make the narrative difficult to follow, and there is a loss of focus on the spoken word, one of the play’s greatest assets.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Director: Damien Ryan
Composer/Music Director: Alec Steedman
Set and Costume Designer: Emma White
Lighting Designer: David Murray
Cast: Andrew Buchanan, Helen Cassidy, Courtney Cavallaro, Davis Dingle, Andrew Hearle, Philippe Klaus, Hannah Raven, Colin Smith, Emma Wright
As You Like It will be performed until 13 May 2023.