Greg Hersov’s production of As You Like It is superb entertainment – a spectacular assault of sights and sounds on the addled Postmodern brain. As the play’s heroine, Rosalind, Cush Jumbo is a revelation transforming long difficult passages into humorous anecdotes. She is aided by what her character thinks is a rural swagger – a comic mispronunciation of pastoral body language. In fact, the whole cast breathe wonderful life into Shakespeare’s characters. Audrey’s rustic cackle still makes me smile.
As You Like It starts by presenting Duke Frederick’s court as a Playboy club replete with Wrestlemania – Frederick’s wrestler, Charles, becomes a masked WWE superstar. The Reservoir Dogs style dark suits and black sunglasses attiring the Duke and his courtiers along with two scantily clad cocktail waitresses display patriarchal power. However, Frederick’s erotic gangster dominion is undermined by the comical Touchstone – brilliantly played by Ian Bartholomew – who prances about stage zipped up in a fluffy rabbit outfit. What is interesting is that both the male and female characters wear the infamous bunny ears, which creates a resonance with the Forest of Arden. The vivid display of the iconic Playboy symbol implies how the civilised court has tamed the savage forest.
The production’s soundscape designer John Goodfellow, interviewed in the As You Like It programme, accentuates the play’s contemporary themes:
Lots of people are escaping from the city these days and they’re looking for a more simple life – growing vegetables and living off the land and facing the elements. They are ridding themselves of having to wear a business suit and letting go. (Goodfellow 15)
There is a clear contrast between court and country in Shakespeare’s play – the court is competitive and superficial, while the country is an asylum for sensitive souls. Yet the differences between court and country are also blurred. Duke Frederick’s insecurities are revealed when he unexpectedly banishes Rosalind, his niece, from his Playboy mansion; having already usurped his brother’s, Duke Senior’s, kingdom – both parts played by Terence Wilton who convincingly adopts the aggressive and passive extremes as though the brothers are two sides of a double-headed penny. In typical flawed style reminiscent of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic heroes – King Lear, Hamlet, Othello – Frederick also loses his daughter Celia because she decides to leave with Rosalind, her close friend.
The play switches to the Forest of Arden and provides a sense of enchantment with the clever use of loud speakers suspended from the technical scaffolding above. Naturalistic sounds transport the audience to a David Attenborough like haven, which also recalls The Tempest:
CALIBAN: Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices, (III.II, lines 135-38)
The green and orange speakers provide the same magical sense of peace and serenity that Caliban identifies in The Tempest’s island. Further ambience is provided by composer and troubadour James Dey who intermittently drifts through the stage strumming a guitar.
The play’s pastoral setting or ‘simple life’ presided over by the exiled Duke Senior is a non-hierarchal community. The casual clothing worn by the shepherds and shepherdesses obliterates power dressing and accentuated gender differences. Interestingly, Phoebe and Silvius wear ‘Let England Shake’ tee-shirts, the title of a recent album by PJ Harvey. The anti-war album is perhaps a contemporary reference emphasising the pastoral’s association with peace and harmony.
The shepherd’s singing is impressively melodious with a round-the-camp-fire sense of belonging. It prepares the audience for the finale where Rosalind, Celia and Phoebe are romantically paired, and the stage is filled with most of the cast singing, dancing and/or playing instruments. Amidst the festivities, Jaques de Boys announces that Duke Frederick has given himself to a religious life and returned the kingdom to his brother. Therefore, the brothers switch roles to indicate a new court free from corruption. However, the other Jaques’s famous speech contains a sobering thought in a play where the cast adopt different identities:
JAQUES: All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts, (II.vii, lines 139-142)
The player can be a sophisticated two-faced courtier, a simple friendly shepherd and a melancholic wandering aimlessly between the two extremes. Though, eventually, she/he ends up dead. Therefore, the Carpe Diem motif has never been stronger in a production that promotes the amiable and laid back pastoral life.
Goodfellow, John. ‘Sounds of the Forest’. As You Like It Programme. Manchester:Royal Exchange Theatre, 2011.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. 1599. Ed. Agnes Latham. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1975.
—. The Tempest. 1623. Eds. Virginia Mason Vaughan & Alden T.Vaughan. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1999.