Yesterday evening, I visited Stratford-Upon-Avon to see As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre directed by Kimberley Sykes. It starred Lucy Phelps as Rosalind and David Ajao as Orlando. Having never read the play before (despite meaning to), I came out of the theatre doors thoroughly mesmerised by the way the production dealt with the fourth wall: Aside from feeling wholly satisfied by the comedic tangle being resolved by the ‘happily ever after’ marriage(s).
For those who aren’t familiar with As You Like It, it is a comedic romance play written by none-other than William Shakespeare, and is believed to have been performed by the King’s Men theatre troupe to open the Globe in 1599. Orlando is the younger son of Oliver and their father, Roland de Bois has recently died. Oliver treats his sibling harshly and Orlando is left bitter and angry (their servant breaks up a fight between them). He challenges Charles, the court wrestler, to a fight. As a slippery character, Oliver manipulates Charles in the endeavour to injure Orlando. Cue Duke Frederick’s daughter, Celia, and her cousin, Rosalind the daughter of the old Duke recently deposed by the new Duke, who has been permitted to stay at the court. They watch the wrestling match. Rosalind falls in love with Orlando, who beats Charles. Rosalind gives Orlando her necklace to remember her by; and he is also overcome with love. Orlando hears of a plot against him formulated by his brother and retreats to the Forest of Arden. Rosalind is banished from court by the new Duke for no real cause, and Celia joins her cousin on principle. They disguise themselves as Ganymede, a young man, and Aliena, his shepherdess sister, respectively (also joined by Touchstone, the court fool).
Here’s where things get spicy. In the Forest, the lovesick shepherd Silivius pines after a scornful and brash shepherdess, Phoebe. Ganymede takes up the leasehold of an old shepherd’s estate and he and Aliena settle down. Elsewhere, the old Duke and his exiled courtiers live a simple life. A campfire meal is interrupted by Orlando desperate for sustainance for him, but particulaly his servant who is on his last legs. Orlando writes love letters for Rosalind on trees around the forest. Ganymede finds them and Orlando and proposed to cure him of his love. Ganymede poses as Rosalind (who they really are) and makes Orlando woo them in lessons every day. Meanwhile, Pheobe falls for Ganymede, and Silivius still for Pheobe. Touchstone allures a country girl, Audrey, with his courtliness. She abandons her admirer, William, for him.
In another twist, the new Duke notices both Orlando and Rosalind left at the same time, and orders Oliver to seek Orlando out. In the process of this, Oliver is attacked by a lion but Orlando saves him, injuring his arms. Oliver runs through the forest and into Rosalind and Celia, still in their disguises, relating this news. Oliver quickly falls in love with Celia and Rosalind decides to sort this mess out: she makes Pheobe promise that if she no longer loves “him”, she must marry Silivius. Ganyemede reveals himself as Rosalind. So Pheobe marries Silivius. And Touchstone marries Audrey; Oliver, Celia; and Orlando, Rosalind: all under the god Hymen. Orlando’s other older brother comes home from study abroad to relay the news that the new Duke has become a hermit. And all ends happy and good with merry dancing.
Not complicated at all (!). This Sykes’ production was liberating and a joy to watch. There were subtle modern twists, such as Audrey being deaf, Charlotte Arrowsmith the first deaf actress in an RSC production: William acted as her interpretter as Touchstone wooed her, which worked effectively in the little side tradegy for William’s heartbreak. Moreover, Silivius was a woman, which acknowledges recent critical renditions in traditional literatures to embrace the modern vision. Indeed, it was pleasing to see an enthically diverse cast in both lead and peripheral roles.
During the interval, the first half ending with Orlando pinning his love letters around the forest, the actor circulated around the half empty seats discussing what he should write to Rosalind with the audience. Several people were left with his declaration of love on little post-it notes. There are a few moments of audience participation too. Four people were asked to come on stage to hold up letters spelling out Rosalind’s name; a man came on stage wearing a post-it love note jacket; and actors would sit/lie among the stalls at points. There was a moment when Rosalind stormed on-stage unravelling her binder, followed by Celia, ravellling it back up. The Celia actress, Sophine Khan Levy, accidentally pinged the binder and it almost fell. Luckily, both actresses saved it from falling just in time. It was a funny moment of relief for everyone, and again aptly touched the fourth wall. Times when the audience lights came on indicated these liberating, free-flowing moments in the play; interspersed with satisfyingly dramatic monologues for which audiences flock to theatres half a millenium after they were written.
In all, after watching this funny, light-hearted, gender fluid play, I am inclined to wonder whether this could be my new favourite Shakespearean play. without sounding too pretentious, of course. But I can recommend this production of As You Like It to you (running until 31st August at Stratford).