Review: As You Like It

The Lady Parts blog recently posted a casting notice for Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It which described her like so: “a saucy, sexy heroine who saves herself (and others) all while getting her man.”

….well, it’s not wrong? “Saucy” is indeed a word Rosalind uses to describe her intended behavior when she is in disguise as the shepherd boy Ganymede. Sexy… well, her lover Orlando thinks so, though in his self-centered, Petrarchan rhapsodies, he probably wouldn’t use exactly that term. But the only thing Rosalind can really be said to save anyone from is sexual frustration: the real danger lurks outside of the Forest of Arden where she, in her own words again ‘proves a busy actor’ in both the pursuit of her own desires and others’. She does get her man, though. But only after teaching him how to deserve her. 

That dangerous outer world where the play begins– the dual courts of Duke Frederick, who exiled his brother, Rosalind’s father; and that of Oliver de Boys, who has robbed his youngest brother Orlando of his inheritance– seems best characterized in the Globe’s current production by irrational hate. Oliver (William Mannering) confesses that he has no idea why he hates his brother so much, and Duke Frederick refuses to give his reasons for suddenly banishing Rosalind under pain of death. Orlando (Simon Harrison) brings traces of this fury and violence with him into the forest when he flees there, only to be quickly and easily pacified by the exiled Duke (David Beames, who also plays Frederick) and brought over to placid country living, where the only intrigues are romantic and the only violence done to deer. 

On the other hand is Rosalind, who is also forced to flee to save her life, and decides to do so disguised as a boy. I don’t know exactly how to describe what Michelle Terry does except to say that it is wholly winning. Her Rosalind shrieks and shouts and flails and makes faces and is dazzlingly clever yet utterly gobsmacked by her feelings for Orlando. It’s thrilling to watch a woman onstage behave with such lack of inhibition, and for that behavior to be framed as joyfully funny, not as laughable and worthy of mockery. And Terry’s Rosalind does not derive this abandon from her masculine guise– it is what characterizes her private games with her cousin Celia (Ellie Piercy, equally charming). Living as Ganymede simply allows her to bring all her exuberant weirdness out in public. Rosalind and Celia are perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest female friendship (the field of competition isn’t large), and director Blanche McIntyre’s greatest strength there and throughout the play (and one she also demonstrated in The Comedy of Errors) is perhaps her ability to recognize that comic characters can be absurd and human simultaneously. 

Another sterling example of this is James Garnon’s Jaques, melancholic follower of the exiled duke. I frankly tend to find Jaques insufferable, but Garnon’s depiction transformed my understanding. Rather than playing up the character’s pomposity and protestations of melancholy, his understated performance suggests something profoundly truthful about Jaques sadness, while avoiding the kind of hyper-naturalistic performance that does not work particularly well with classical texts in general, but especially not at the Globe. Oh, and he’s funny, too, and finds what seemed to me at least to be a genuinely original spin on the classic ‘All the world’s a stage…’ speech.

In a strange way, though, As You Like It could be Shakespeare’s most naturalistic play. Nothing much happens; the events are mostly structured around watching different characters encounter each other and just seeing what comes of it. It’s a testament to McIntyre’s skill that even so, the play never feels shapeless and the pace always seems brisk. It’s a delightful play about people finding themselves and each other; thankfully, this production doesn’t try to turn it into something more by making it Dark and Serious. Its ethos is perhaps best expressed (as so many things are) by Rosalind herself: “I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad.” As the first half of the play makes plain, such experiences cannot always be avoided… but As You Like It is more in the business of merrymaking. 

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