Backstage in the forest of Arden: Bell Shakespeare’s As You Like It

As You Like It is a bit of a mad old cornucopic delight. It has everything Shakespeare has to offer – political intrigue, danger, love, mistaken identity, a smattering of philosophy, a few songs, (not to mention a spot of cross-dressing and disguise), and it is full of the kind of whimsy and mad-logic that Shakespeare specialises in. In many ways, it’s not so much concerned with a complex plot, or a plot’s complexities (as, say, in Hamlet or Twelfth Night), but rather the interactions and relationships between characters, the ways in which these interactions explore the play’s themes and issues including (but not limited to) love, identity, and self-expression.
Bell Shakespeare’s current production of As You Like It is a strange old beast. Played out against a backdrop of old canvas dropsheets, with several concealed exits and entrances (as befits the oft-quoted set-piece speech), it is characterized by a peculiar languid energy, a strange “holiday humour” where time slows, love is professed, declared and role-played with varying success, and magic can happen if only they’d let it. Directed by co-artistic director Peter Evans, this Arden is full of ideas, as are all his other productions, but somewhere in the transition from the page to the stage, some of Shakespeare [and Rosalind’s] effervescence is lost, and I don’t think it finds it again, if at all.

Michael Hankin’s set is functional, yet while it allows a literally blank canvas for Rosalind to play out her love-game upon, it leaves too much room for the magic to fill, and remains rather visually empty throughout. Arden, when we enter it, is created through ropes of flowers suspended from the ceiling which the actors themselves unwind and drop to the floor; while its effect does grow on you by the play’s conclusion, the effect takes a rather long time to create, and we lose something of the magic in its reveal, in seeing it being created in front of our eyes. Like a magician’s trick, while we long to know how it is created, the real magic lies in believing that it is magic. Costumed by Kate Aubrey-Dunn in a vaguely 1950s-cum-60s aesthetic, there are rich colours and patterns here which create character, but they unfortunately leave little for the actors to do other than play. Kelly Ryall’s rock’n’roll-inspired songs are a particular highlight and, as sung by Abi Tucker, pepper the play’s (in)action with brief bursts of colour and life which we long for again. His soundscapes of twangling bells and piano creates an idyllic landscape which is perhaps more imagined than real, and unifies the space in a kind of dreamlike reverie.
The first half of the production seems too sluggish, too slow, in need of a good injection of adventure, wonder, and life. The second half is more alive, but still feels somewhat empty. As You Like It is an emotional rollercoaster, as characters fall in and out of love with each other, sometimes multiple times in the one scene and all to different people, but it is never static; it’s constantly moving, and there’s always something happening, even if it looks like there’s not. In Evans’ Arden, there’s a lot of inaction and not much really happens at all; there are no stakes, no real sense of threat from the Duke in charge, no tangible need to escape the court and into the forest, no real need to disguise herself as a boy other than perhaps ‘because it’ll be a bit of a lark;’ lines are thrown away, not believed in, their truth not understood, and as a result great slabs of text feel empty, hollow and false in the mouths of the actors who are working hard to make it work. This forest of Arden has a curious deadness at its centre where there should be life and love; even though it is of course an entirely unreal place in the sense that it doesn’t actually physically exist as a forest but rather as a state of mind or a state of being rather than a place of being, it doesn’t have to mean that the physical evocation of it on stage should be unbelievable or theatrically unreal. Here there is no real sense of distinction between court and forest, and thus the journey to Arden becomes obscured and lost, and doubled-roles look, sound and seem too similar to be easily distinguishable from location to location.
As You Like It is essentially Rosalind’s play, or more particularly, she is the play (to quote Barbara Hodgdon). Zahra Newman’s Rosalind is certainly capricious and entertaining, but I didn’t for a minute believe that she was disguised as a boy who calls themself Ganymede. Too much of Newman’s performance is about her character’s wit as opposed to what her character is capable of, what her character enables in the play. While she brings a firecracker energy to Rosalind, a lot of Rosalind’s playfulness and flirtiness is regrettably lost, and her scenes with Orlando are rather love-less where they should be bursting with love and entirely-serious love-play. Rosalind as a character is trying to find herself within ‘Ganymede’ at the same that Orlando is finding his ‘true’ Rosalind – the ‘real’ Rosalind – in Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind; that is to say, she is very much testing the boundaries of how far she may go for love, toeing the water so she may jump headfirst into love one day and know herself. In Newman’s Rosalind however, I never felt the playfulness, never felt that the act of being Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as Rosalind was present, let alone convincing, and that is a shame, because so much of the play relies upon it, depends upon it.
As Celia, Kelly Paterniti brings a welcome bubbliness, and exuberant youthfulness which lights up her scenes, and manages to keep enthusiasm when ours flags. Charlie Garber’s Orlando is well-suited as Rosalind’s love-interest, and provides a welcome burst of love-struck energy at the beginning of the second act. Alan Dukes’ dukes are barely distinguishable; there is no menace to his performance as Duke Frederick, and not much more warmth to his normally-peaceable Duke Senior. Dorje Swallow’s Oliver is too obviously the villain (dressed entirely in black), but he brings a humanness to his role, and although his repentence is too sudden to be entirely believable, the fault is not his but Shakespeare’s. Abi Tucker’s Amiens provides colourful renditions of Kelly Ryall’s songs, while her Audrey is more than a foil to Gareth Davies’ bemused and rather unfunny fool (not even his skills as a comic performer and skilled improviser can make sense of some of Touchstone’s denser speeches). Emily Eskell’s Phebe is passionate, yet doesn’t seem to deserve George Banders’ rather uninspiring Silvius, though their pairing at the finale seems genuinely well-matched. Tony Taylor’s Adam is (bizarrely) characterised as a kind of Chaplin-esque stage-hand, moving a lamp periodically up- and down-stage in a strangely measured gait (a remnant of Evans’ penchant for Meyerhold’s technique perhaps?), but his Corin is genuinely warm and humbly rustic. As the court messenger, John Bell delightfully upstages everyone, dressed in beret, cravat and coat, and has a panache and arrogance which seems to fit the character like a glove; his Jaques is wonderfully dry, and delivers the set-piece ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech without its usual grandstanding, and shows just how effective, effortless, and understated acting can be.

I admire Evans’ intellectual intentions behind this As You Like It, but like Orlando crucially says towards the end of the play (and wonderfully underplayed by Garber), “I can no longer live by thinking.” I know what Rosalind is capable of, what she can be, what she is, but I don’t want to know it intellectually; I want to know it emotionally, I want to feel it emotionally and physically. I want to feel Rosalind’s presence throughout the production, feel and see her pulling (heart) strings, feel her making things happen, see her making us feel, see her making us fall in love with her, but alas it was not to be. Ultimately, and to quote Touchstone, this As You Like It is so-so – “so-so’ is good, very good, very excellent good; and yet it is not; it is but so so.” For a play about love in every form, this is strangely lacking the capacity to make us love it. It feels like a rehearsal for a production, or like being backstage at a production of the play and not seeing what is happening on the other side of the canvas curtains. Even though Rosalind in the epilogue implores us to like “as much of [the] play as please [us],” it feels like a get-out-of-gaol card played much too late in the game to excuse itself with dignity.

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