If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from William Shakespeare it’s that the zaniest of antics happen in the forest.
Presented by: Belvoir, Company B Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Thursday, 24 November 2011
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from William Shakespeare it’s that the zaniest of antics happen in the forest. I’m actually surprised there aren’t a bunch of rom-coms featuring people stranded in forests to this very day (though now we have airports, and restaurants, and apartment buildings…) As You Like It is a forest play — as in, we go into the forest to lose our minds a little, but ultimately change and find resolution — and the stage is reserved for the forest; the opening scenes take place amongst the audience, on the stairs and through the fire exits. Rosalind (the awkwardly charming Alison Bell) even brushes past a row of seated audience members to continue her scene with Orlando (Ashley Zuckerman) to great comic effect.
That’s the beauty of Eamon Flack’s production, the final show of the Belvoir St Theatre’s 2011 season. It’s a wink and a nudge, it’s not afraid to break the fourth wall, it doesn’t shy away from anachronisms if it’s for the sake of comedy (Charlie Garber’s Touchstone, in a fabulous riff on Orlando’s less than inspired rhyming scheme in love poems, pairs the word ‘Rosalind’ with ‘Venetian blind’). It’s incredibly self-aware and encourages the audience to be in on the joke, too. This is Shakespeare for the audience; this is Shakespeare as a celebration of words, of preposterousness, of unmitigated fun.
Here’s basically how it works: Rosalind’s father Duke Senior was exiled by his brother, also a Duke, and Rosalind stayed at court owing to her close friendship with her cousin Celia (Yael Stone). When Rosalind meets Orlando and they fall in love, the Duke becomes enraged and banishes her, too. Rosalind and Celia flee together, Rosalind posing as a man — Ganymede. They are accompanied by their Fool Touchstone, who falls in love with the shepherdess Audrey (Casey Donovan). Orlando meets ‘Ganymede’ in the forest and agrees to practice wooing Rosalind on him; meanwhile the love of a shepherd named Silvius, the caustic Phebe (Gareth Davies), falls in love with Ganymede, and then there’s Celia — well, you get the idea. It would be entirely farcical if it weren’t so delightfully warm. If the jokes didn’t all land with a punch (or at least a hastily-made clamber for a laugh – “It’s very clever!”, Rosalind protests after her particular archaic witticisms seem to come up short).
The best joke of all, though, is probably the sheep. As You Like It is undeniably a pastoral play, and this addition is a stroke of genius. There’s a veritable flock of them (with a standout performance by Hamish Michael), ears and all, who chew grass, bleat when it’s called for, stare blankly, and even — in some hilarious interval entertainment — get stuck in the small onstage pond. That pond later gives Orlando his own Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy moment (you know the moment I mean, in the fountain?), thus proving this play’s status as a forward-thinking multi-referential explosion.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Charlie Garber’s Touchstone is a modern kind of Court Jester, with the comic sensibility and timing that could have come from a fresh, cult comedy favourite like Parks and Recreation or 30 Rock or The Office in its glory years. Yael Stone and Alison Bell as Rosalind and Celia are a well-balanced comic duo, and Bille Brown’s Jacques is melancholy, grouchy, and deliciously gruff. Casey Donovan could sing the phone book and hold anyone transfixed, and her work, along with the ensemble, dominating the play’s little songs such as ‘Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind’, is its own kind of magic. The brothers de Bois, Oliver (Hamish Michael) and Orlando (Zuckerman), are both highly entertaining in different ways — Michael’s turn as a pastoral priest, complete with an inexplicable Casio keyboard and pre-recorded beat for the Wedding March was a standout of the performance, and Zuckerman’s choices for Orlando are invigorating, especially his clumsiness and low threshold for pain — except for his character’s trademark wrestling.
This play doesn’t take itself seriously at all and it’s through that very conceit that allows the moments of true gravity come through unaffected and unpretentious. That’s almost entirely due to the work of Trevor Jamieson as the quietly dignified exiled Duke Senior, and Bille Brown, who speaks the well-known “all the world’s a stage” lines. He delivers the speech simply, but with impact, and we realise that this play, while almost all entirely in fun, still has a little something to say.
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