As You Like It is one of those Shakespeares that doesn’t seem to come around quite as often as others, at least not locally. Sure, it’s no Timon of Athens, but it’s certainly not A Midsummer Night’s Dream either. Enjoying perhaps a bit less popularity of late than Shakespeare’s other great cross-dressing comedy Twelfth Night, As You Like It is a jolly, pastoral romp filled with amusing characters in unusual but not particularly dire situations. Falling in love at first sight is always a cue for some good laughs, especially when false identities (and genders) are involved.
The story, as such, isn’t enormously memorable. Perhaps it was my lesser familiarity with the text, but there were certainly points where I found myself mentally asking “so, why is she doing this, again?” Forgive the harping on Twelfth Night as a benchmark, but the multiple love-tangles in that play all seem perfectly positioned, with the lovers’ misaimed affections all meshing with clear character motivations. The plot of As You Like It, on the other hand, can come across as a little bit directionless at times, or at least it seemed so in this particular production, particularly during some lulls in Act Two where the action starts to drag.
(I take some solace regarding my heathen criticism of the Bard’s play from the fact that As You Like It does have a long history of debate regarding its merits comparative to the rest of his canon. Shaw, for example, wasn’t much of a fan.)
In any case, Rosalind is considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest female roles, and it certainly is a substantial one. Disguised as a young man named Ganymede (and let’s not forget, she would have originally been played by a boy, acting a woman, pretending to be a man…), Rosalind has free reign to utilise her considerable wit and cunning, stringing along most of the other characters in one way or another. Saskia Smith has a challenge on her hands in tackling this part, and although she initially seemed a bit overshadowed by the far more bubbly and naturalistic Lexi Freiman as Celia, she eventually came into her own. With a lot of natural charm and some interesting physicality, Smith did a very solid job with the role, although she came short of being the most noteworthy presence in this production.
That honour would go to Damien Ryan’s indelible portrayal of Jaques the wry melancholic. A jewel of a character indeed, Jaques is a sardonic raconteur, a verbose gentleman dedicated to the most exquisite whingeing and dour contemplation to which you’ll ever have the pleasure of listening. Ryan is absolute perfection in the part, treating us to lashings of deadpan but never making too much of a meal of it all. Not only this, but he gets to do a beautiful rendition of one of Shakespeare’s most oft-quoted speeches, “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players…”
Also very good is the aforementioned Freiman who, in addition to having a highly appealing stage presence, has that particular talent that even many highly experienced Shakespearian actors lack: the ability to make the lines seem like everyday speech, rolling off the tongue as easily as if she were in casual conversation. Stephen Phillips also does a good job as the lovesick Orlando, and Ed Wightman proved a crowd-pleaser as Touchstone the Fool. Philip Dodd and Glenn Hazeldine are great value as always, milking plenty of humour from their supporting roles.
The show doesn’t feature much in the way of an interesting production concept or a noteworthy reinterpretation of anything, the fight choreography is pretty ordinary and the stagecraft in general is nothing to write home about, all amidst a singularly uninspired set. The production’s saving grace, apart from its strong cast, was the several musical numbers scattered throughout both acts. Produced with minimal instrumentation by the actors themselves, these charming little episodes of harmony singing with a bit of rustic dance thrown in are really quite beguiling, and skillfully executed.
The middling bits aside, it is a good show, but not a great one. I want to praise John Bell’s direction, although once again I find various aspects of this production lacking the boldness of so many of Bell Shakespeare’s past triumphs, which is rather disappointing as their recent production of The Government Inspector was one of their best ever. I mustn’t overstate things – it is by any measure a solid production, it just lacks that special flare that Bell and his company often bring to their work.
As You Like It may not be one of Bell (or Bill) Shakespeare’s best, but it is most certainly worth a look.
As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Venue: Playhouse | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 1 February - 1 March 2008
Times: Monday @ 6.30pm; Tuesday - Saturday @ 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday & Saturday @ 1.30pm
Bookings: Sydney Opera House Box Office 02 9250 7777 | www.sydneyoperahouse.com