REVIEW: As You Like It (Summer Shakespeare)

Review by Nathan Joe

Summer Shakespeare

[That’s the Way I Like It]

It’s refreshing to return to the Auckland University Clock Tower space for Summer Shakespeare this year. Despite the excitement of the Pop-Up Globe, there was always a level of intimacy sacrificed in the massive space. There some productions were often at the mercy of the venue, servicing the stage rather than the script. Here the cast of As You Like It feel completely at home.

Set against a backdrop that moves from entrapment to freedom, As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s most unabashedly romantic plays. Admittedly, it’s not known for its sophisticated storytelling, especially compared to the  inevitable tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the mistaken identity convolutedness of Twelfth Night, and the magical love triangles of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. No, it’s paper thin plot of youths running away from home and taking refuge in the a forest to escape the bad blood between feuding families is the stuff of pure plot devices. But it works.

What the play lacks in narrative intrigue is more than made up by its exuberant language, containing many of Shakespeare’s most eloquent images and his wittiest banter. The simplicity of the story also places a greater emphasis on other aspects of the play, namely the characters and, most importantly, the setting.

The Forest of Arden is one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, a place that embodies liberty, a direct contrast to the oppressive and rigid court society. Here, the backdrop of the forest is less traditionally pastoral and more music festival, an appropriate analogue for contemporary audiences that not only works well comedically, but rings dramaturgically true too. While some of the musical segments and transitions can feel overlong, it’s a minor issue in such a simple but effective revamp of Shakespeare’s most optimistic setting.

Though the play doesn’t truly come to life until we leave for the Forest of Arden, it’s also appropriate, trading the practically funereal aesthetic for a more vibrant and colourful one. Director Benjamin Henson doesn’t treat the opening scenes as being purely expositional though. Everything is executed with the right amount of specificity and creativity, bringing the script to life, not just going through the motions. This includes the scrappy brotherly fights that quickly devolve into the juvenalia they really are, with Arlo Green playing Oliver de Bois with the right amount of fratricidal fury. The wrestling match is also a particular highlight, brought to vivid life with superb choreography.

The acting styles on display tend to fall into two groups: high camp versus modern interpretation. Most of the older representatives of the court operate on the former, while the youths that inhabit the Forest of Arden are more of the latter. Rather than clashing, it highlights the stark contrast between the two worlds.

When spunky Rosalind meets soulful Orlando, we need to see her fall in love at first sight. Francesca Savige’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s major heroine and Aaron Richardson’s ability to capture the doe-eyed boyishness lend the romance credibility. Their mutual but overwhelming affection towards each other becoming the axis the play revolves around.

It’s also nice to see the homoerotic aspect of  Orlando’s attraction towards Rosalind’s male alter ego, Ganymede, isn’t played for laughs. That’s not to say it’s not funny, especially as Rosalind plays Ganymede playing Rosalind, but it’s funny for the reason all love is crazy, stupid, funny. If the measure of any As You Like It’s success is based on the seduction scenes between our two central lovers, then Henson’s is particularly exceptional.

Kate McGill’s genderswapped Jaques is also one of the highlights of the show, playing against the obviousness of the character’s  melancholy disposition. Though the overly French caricature results in making her feel like a lost cast member of last year’s Don Juan, it never feels hokey. The result is a sarcastic snarker hiding a far softer side deep down. Her performance of ‘All the World’s a Stage’ is also a  interpretation that definitely doesn’t disappoint.

Other notable performances include Jessie Lawrence’s Celia, who makes an effective sister-figure, their friendship as charming as any of the romantic love stories running through the course of the play, and Murdoch Keane’s Touchstone, a stellar example of a Shakespearean Fool. But Henson manages to make good use of the various subplots and side characters, making sure that none of the ensemble ever feels wasted.

Not as inventive as Henson’s own metatheatrical interpretation of Titus, As You Like It is a more faithful take on the play, though not without its modern quirks and touches, capturing both the spirit of The Bard and the times we live in. A highly accessible rendition of the play that never sacrifices textual clarity.

But the evocation of the Forest of Arden as a place where goodness, joy and individuality run rampant is the reason to see the show. Where people come together to express themselves freely. It might be the stuff of fairytales, but a welcome one.

As You Like It plays at the University of Auckland Clocktower lawn until 11 March. Details see Summer Shakespeare

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Leigh Sykes

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