As You Like It

Comedy turned on its head: As You Like It at the Rose Theatre Bankside

 As You Like It, directed by Jessica Ruano, rewrites Shakespeare’s comedy by omitting the sub-plots of the play involving the comic characters of Touchstone, Corin, Silvius, Phoebe and Audrey. Her re-arranging and editing of Shakespeare’s narrativeensures that the play is re-written as a tragedy, resisting the redemptive themes in the original As You Like It text.

The Rose Bankside’s As You Like It, directed by Jessica Ruano, rewrites Shakespeare’s comedy in significant ways, mainly by omitting the sub-plots of the play involving the comic characters of Touchstone, Corin, Silvius, Phoebe and Audrey. Instead, Jaques the Melancholic gains a far more central role, with his monologue of ‘All the world’s a stage’ opening the play, cutting the first two and a half acts of the original, and reducing a 120-minute play to 75 minutes.

More significantly, the Bankside production ends with an image of death and the hunt, rather than with the comic convention of marriage, which in As You Like It sees Rosalind present, rather ironically, the woman’s view on marriage: ironic, that is, because the actor and the audience would be in on the joke that the words are spoken by a young man playing Rosalind. Instead, Jessica Ruano’s re-arranging and editing of Shakespeare’s narrative, I feel, ensures that the play is re-written as a tragedy, resisting the redemptive themes in the original As You Like It.

Of course, license to interpret Shakespeare’s texts has been the prerogative of theatre directors ever since the Restoration of English theatres in 1662. One noteworthy rearranger of Shakespeare’s plays — the American director Charles Marowitz — proudly claimed, in the mid-1980s, that his rearrangement of Hamlet, Merchant of Venice and Othello was about destroying Shakespeare’s plays like you might smash a precious old vase. Speaking of his production of Hamlet at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre he explained that after smashing the vase in a thousand pieces, he intended to ‘take those pieces and put them back together… Shakespeare provides the vase and I provide the glue.’

I am jolted from the very outset of Ruano’s interpretation of As You Like It. I try to imagine the purpose of the production as a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s darker themes of wilful pride leading to social chaos as brother fights brother and rightful heirs are denied the inheritances they’re entitled to.  In eliminating the professional jester, Touchstone, the fools become those aimlessly pursuing true love and personal happiness in the Forest of Arden.

However, I remain unclear about what is gained by the re-arrangement. In the past, I have enjoyed the way that Touchstone, and through him Rosalind, ends up being caught up with the local country folk, Corin, Phoebe, Silvius and Audrey. To my mind, the plot complication this brings to the dramatic narrative amplifies the foolishness of the Court characters. I missed the banter, and in particular, Touchstone’s edgy risk-taking comments alongside his own foolish actions. Without him I believe what we are left observing is the immaturity of the young lovers romping about unimpeded in the forest.

I grant that such an approach may be interesting as ‘performance research’. Consequently, the production holds my interest through its use of space, particularly in lighting and sound designers Sarah Crocker and Luca Romagnoli’s, use of the watery lagoon (which conserves the foundations of the original Rose Theatre) as a backdrop of the drama. Suzanne Marie and Stacy Sobieski do a good job of portraying Rosalind and Celia as both strong and dynamic in showing young women caught up in the conflict between duty to parental demands and personal integrity.

Orlando and Jaques are also well portrayed as counter-balancing characters, by Matthew Howell and Andrew Venning. While Orlando believes in ‘true love’, Jaques has only contempt for it. However, the role of Oliver, played by Tom Hartill, was weakened by the simplified plot, so that his attraction to Aliena/ Celia seemed only to contradict his darker purpose. Similarly, the omission of Duke Frederick weakened the representation of Duke Senior and his band of forest outlaws and their need to continue to live away from the deathly advances of the younger Duke.

What we are left with is an arrangement of scenes showing that we live by sheer human will, mostly alienated and alone. With Touchstone nowhere to be seen, the space for the fool and foolish arrogance is also eliminated and the phrase ‘as you like it’ is emptied of its ironic meaning. When the play ended, with a deer being killed, I was disappointed — I’d been looking forward to hearing how laughter might sound in a re-imagined Forest of Arden.

Date reviewed: Saturday 5th October 2013