"Bitter Arcadia" the Polish critic Jan Kott labels the Illyria of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the Arden of his As You Like It. Surely Rebecca Hall’s Rosalind, in the always clear and sometimes revelatory production of the latter that’s been imported to the Wilbur, lives there. In the staging helmed by her eminent director father, Sir Peter Hall, the actress is a Rosalind seemingly brought up not at Duke Senior’s knee but at melancholy Jaques’s or lovesick Orsino’s. Gawky and natural, a passing Oxbridge androgyne, she’s not only "more than common tall" but also more than common sad. Posing as a rustic youth ostensibly out to cure her smitten swain of loving her, this Rosalind hovers between anger and fear, attraction and tears. It’s as if she’d taken to heart her own teasing warning that "Men are April when they woo, December when they wed" and isn’t sure she likes the sea of love in which she’s drowning — however handsome the lifeguard. It’s an unusual reading of the part that adds to the somber undercurrent of a production that’s otherwise both fleet and complete.
As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, its clever, cross-dressing heroine essayed by the famed from Vanessa Redgrave to Katharine Hepburn to Gwyneth Paltrow. Written in 1599 (when the Globe Theatre opened its doors), the play, a cavalcade of varieties of love, borrows its plot from Thomas Lodge’s 1590 pastoral romance Rosalynde. From Lodge the Bard cribs the premise of the rightful ruler banished by his usurping brother to the Forest of Arden, to which both dukes’ daughters pursue him, and the story of Orlando, the ill-used youngest son of a deceased noble father who meets the heroine when he tries his luck against the usurping duke’s wrestler and must later flee his own murderous brother. All roads lead to Arden, of course, where Orlando’s inamorata, disguised as a boy for safety’s sake, befriends and sets out to cure him of the love she at once mocks and craves. Shakespeare adds the court clown Touchstone, cynically parodying sentiment and confounding the rustics with his slippery wit; the repentant libertine turned general castigator Jaques, railing against the fate of Man and hunted beast; an element of satire; and the wordsmith’s fairy dust that alchemically turns plagiarism to genius.
Part of last summer’s Sir Peter Hall season at Theatre Royal Bath, a celebration of the Royal Shakespeare Company founder and long-time Royal National Theatre head’s 50 years as a director, this solid, English As You Like It, populated by RSC veterans as well as being happily fueled by nepotism, comes to us as part of a three-city American tour. It’s no surprise that the elder Hall, who has been directing Shakespeare almost two and a half times longer than his 21-year-old daughter has been alive, knows his stuff. He has, it’s odd to discover, never before staged an As You Like It, but he vividly charts the play’s journey from discord to harmony, from rib cracking to rustic revels, as well as from "winter and rough weather" to a verdant marital finish. And the production, though it gathers up the play’s moral and philosophical weight like nosegays along the way, moves as quickly as an Arden deer that doesn’t want to be dinner.
Written as much in exacting prose as in verse, As You Like It needs to be elegantly yet naturally spoken, as it is here, in a visually simple staging that is nonetheless dramatic, whether underlining the fascist thuggishness of usurping Duke Frederick’s court, a black-militarist place where red-clad Rosalind and pumpkin-dressed Celia are the only dots of color, or the elemental adversity of the Forest of Arden to which the two flee when Rosalind is banished by her uncle. The seasons figure mightily in the staging, as they do in the text, with the arborial projections that augment John Gunter’s towering cyc turning from bleak winter to an early, yellow-green spring that ripens.
Too often As You Like It is all romantic romp (or, sometimes, farce), brushing away harsh circumstance like crumbs at a picnic. Here, we meet Orlando, who’s soon to overthrow Charles the Wrestler and the heart of Rosalind, upturning a wheelbarrow full of dirt as he works his elder brother’s land. His bout against the WWF precursor is similarly strenuous. And as Duke Senior pep-talks his huddled "comates and brothers in exile" amid the cold, unaccommodating freedom of the Forest of Arden, the "icy fang" of winter sinks in, snow falls, and most of the blanket-swaddled company look as if they’d dearly love to be at Motel 6. The Dr. Zhivago atmosphere makes the desperation of Orlando, who forces himself upon the Duke’s party and their meager feast, the more keen and his prolonged ministration to his half-dead old servant, Adam, the sweeter. By the time RSC stalwart Philip Voss’s gruff, Ibsenesque-looking Jaques, trailing a long green muffler, has made his precise and scathing way through the Seven Ages of Man, none of them good, and Glenn Carter’s mellifluous Amiens has put a mournful spin on "Blow, blow, thou winter wind," we’re ready for spring.
After an early (following Shakespeare’s act two) intermission, it’s here. The characters have shed their overcoats (and Michael Siberry’s Touchstone the argyles and oxfords that were part of his motley). Birdsong and sunlight abound, and even Hall’s tremulous Rosalind — a convincingly boyish Ganymede in boots, rolled-up sleeves, and low-slung trousers, her long dark hair stuffed into a trilby — evinces a shard or two of true delight perusing the doggerel Orlando has taken to hanging on the filmily budding trees. The way the actress plays the giddy scenario that follows, in which she offers Orlando and others love counseling while trying to sort out the play’s lusting couples correctly, Rosalind is not at all sure that she can pull it off. There’s too much Huck Finn shrugging in Hall’s boy Ganymede, but the hesitance of the young woman trying to orchestrate her future and others’ — always aware of the irony and precariousness of it all, yet increasingly throwing caution to the wind — works well.
Hall is necessarily the center of the production, as well as the most interesting thing in it. But she’s far from the only thing. Voss’s Jaques is as commandingly bitter as he is melancholy, and Siberry brings a lupine charisma to the slumming Touchstone. David Yelland is one of the most successfully differentiated double-cast Dukes I’ve ever seen, his mustachio’d Frederick dryly nasty, his wise yet benign Duke Senior doddering about the forest in an old gardening hat, his rimless spectacles slipping down his nose. And in a production that generally acknowledges the audience (as makes good sense, since there’s an epilogue directed to us), he makes lemonade of one of the play’s hokier conventions, the apparent unrecognizability of Rosalind to either lover or father, when he comes right downstage and remarks of Ganymede, "I do remember in this shepherd boy/Some lively touches of my daughter’s favor." Well, duh.
Among the "country copulatives," current and retired, Peter Gordon is a tweedy, underplayed Corin, entering with seasoned earnestness into his debates with Touchstone. Amanda Symonds, all spreading cleavage and frizzy hair, is suitably foul yet childlike as Audrey, the slow-on-the-uptake wench for whom Touchstone jadedly sets his hat. And as the rural Lady Disdain of the piece, the shepherdess Phebe, beloved of Silvius but lusting for Rosalind in drag, Natalie Walter adds a touch of femininity to her sarcastic threat of murder by glare, batting her eyelashes at the same time she’s aiming visual daggers at David Birkin’s touchingly docile Silvius.
It is an interesting aspect of this As You Like It that its Rosalind, though declaring herself "fathom deep" in love with Orlando, actually seems happier in Celia’s company. Director Hall makes an engaging threesome of them, placing Rosalind and Joseph Millson’s Orlando in such physical proximity for their every exchange, whether raptly in each other’s faces or on their knees like Hansel and Gretel, that the magnetism is palpable — and painful. And always, at a small remove, is Rebecca Callard’s pert, dubious Celia — adorable in snug brown bodice and combat boots — looking as if she neither believed nor condoned the juggling Rosalind is up to.
The two actresses, whether as cousins in the court or siblings in the country, convey the kidding spontaneity of the relationship between Rosalind and Celia — an easy, affectionate counter to the torture of romantic love. And Millson is a terrific Orlando, not just a sighing "Signior Love" but also a rightly angry young man. Not only does the handsome actor sport the most fetchingly flopping hair since Hugh Grant’s, he also embodies the dichotomies of As You Like It, both posturing and seething with passion. When he declares, with authority as well as ardor, that "I can no longer live by thinking," we know it’s time to set the alarm clock on this idyll and get on with life in all its un-Arcadian complication.
Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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