Midway through a national tour, Bell Shakespeare’s production of As You Like It directed by John Bell is crisp, funny, and impressive in almost all elements.
However, the problem I have with Bell Shakespeare productions is that they lack a defined time and place. Whilst this has the benefit of allowing audiences to create their own world, I find that it creates issues with sets, costumes and context. The company’s insistence in creating contemporary versions of Shakespeare often ensures a mish mash of set and costume. For those struggling with the text, it adds further confusion when unable to tie the play to an era.
Whilst As You Like It is one of the freer plays in terms of setting, the set and costumes in this production were at complete odds with each other. Both designed by the late Jennie Tate, the Forest of Arden was represented by huge hazy white hangings and a cyclorama with palm trees and parrots sketched on it like a large crayon drawing. This tropical setting would have been suitable if the cast had not been wearing winter clothes and acting like they were cold.
The opening set (the palace) was bland and meaningless, looking more like a low budget production than a full-scale national show. For me, it was a reminder of the contrast between my experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company with huge, detailed sets - created with huge detailed budgets, and the tight, shoestring budgets so many of our Australian companies work with.
The costumes were varied and like most As You Like It productions, had a colour scheme to differentiate between warring factions. Once again though, I struggled with the lack of direction and era. Last night for example, mid way through a scene I looked at Celia’s shoes and thought, ‘oh, I have those shoes in black’. It was a jolt back into reality that I found annoying and disturbing.
For all these faults however, the depth and understanding by the cast of the plays’ text and themes was faultless. They brought to life scenes that too often drag and injected new and different meanings into well-known moments.
Saskia Smith as Rosalind (the largest female role in Shakespeare) was clear, crisp and arguably the best Rosalind I have seen. Her long wandering monologues were delivered with grace and style. Together with Lexi Freiman as cousin Celia, she exuded the girly nature of a young woman that is so often lacking in productions of the play.
Stephen Phillips ably portrayed the love struck Orlando but was outshone by Smith in the wooing scenes. Damien Ryan played Jaques with his famous ‘all the world’s a stage’ speech, with an aching melancholy. There was a particularly touching scene between Jaques and Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede) that brought new depth to the character.
Various members of the cast used guitar, drums and electronic piano to perform the musical numbers composed by Basil Hogios. The synthesized effect of the piano jarred with me, particularly whilst in the Forest, but the cast sung well. The dance sequences were fun, performed with skill and had the audience clapping along.
Overall, despite my misgivings about the set, this is one of the better As You Like It productions I have seen. The clarity of the text was impeccable, and the cast should be commended on their bubbly, intelligent performance.
Bell Shakespeare presents
As You Like It
by William Shakespeare
Venue: Playhouse Theatre
Dates: 8 - 10 May 2008
Bookings: BOCS 08 9484 1133