Left – Zahra Newman
Director Peter Evans was determined to cast Zahra Newman for the role of Rosalind in Bell Shakespeare's latest production of As You Like It. Newman is a fabulously strong presence but her natural accent is a distracting contrast to everybody else’s. Her Rosalind isn’t well-matched by Charlie Garbers’ Orlando though; he starts off as an unformed self-pitying character with a whine in his voice that reminds you of how Dave Hughes speaks. Orlando becomes manlier by the end of the play but you’re still left thinking Ros has married down.
This is a delightful and adorable production, the set is gorgeous, and the kind of everywhere-but-nowhere-in-particular set design where the Forest of Arden becomes a hanging garden of colourful blooms, by Michael Hankin is enchanting. Every shred of theatricality is wrung out of the script, which has undergone some small pruning by Evans. Lots of cultural references and elements in the design make you smile, costuming by Kate Aubrey-Dunn gives Rosalind a 50s style whereas Cousin Celia’s look is pure Gidget from the 60s. Each character is wonderfully distinct from the other in mannerism and outfit.
Feminism is always a tricky lens through which to filter anything of Shakespeare's or indeed, anything written so long ago. Rosalind in As You Like It is always described as Shakespeare’s most complex and individual heroine with a lot to say about women and marriage. She’s uncompromising when advising poor peasant girl Audrey (Abi Tucker) to marry Silvius (George Banders), a tricky moment where Rosalind’s pragmatism is revealed: Rosalind’s father (Alan Dukes) has been recently banished to Arden and now she is too (as she's disguised as a boy for reasons of safety, her father doesn’t realise who she is when she arrives in the forest); life is dangerous, it can change in an instant and women are at the mercy of tyrants and bullies like the Duke Frederick (Dukes again), or Oliver (Dorje Swallow), who actually turns into a nice guy and falls for Celia for the purposes of a happy ending.
If a good man presents himself, Rosalind seems to be saying, then grab him while you can. She herself is initially attracted to Orlando for his muscles, after he bests wrestler Charlie (Banders again) in a (not terribly believable but who cares) match. Orlando is smitten in return, banishes himself to the forest, and proves to be a sensitive romantic with a penchant for writing love poems which he attaches to forest trees. Rosalind is hilariously scathing about his versifying. Gareth Davies is hilarously and noticably charismatic as the clown Touchstone. Music-wise the play is satisfying with songs in the script set to various styles by Kelly Ryall and sung by Abi Tucker. John Bell is a treat as the melancholy Jaques and the character Le Beau, and so too is Tony Taylor as Corin and Adam.
It’s all lovely and funny and well worth seeing.
Bell Shakespeare Presents presents
As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Director Peter Evans
Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 23 April – 10 May 2015
Tickets: $45 – $79