I went to the dress rehearsal for the Wharf Theatre’s production of ‘As You Like It’, directed by Liz Sharman, on Sunday.
Described as a pastoral comedy, ‘As You Like It’ is thought to have been written in 1599 and would have been played to an audience of mixed social status and varying degrees of education. Not being familiar with the play I did some reading before I went, and not for the first time was amazed at the extraordinary level of analysis that has been applied to it over the years.
What if sometimes Shakespeare just wrote stuff for fun?
‘As You Like It’ is a story of lovers and fools, relationships and rivalry, romance and reconciliation.
Duke Senior, having been deposed by his brother Duke Frederick, has set up camp in the Forest of Arden. Back in the court his daughter Rosalind has fallen in love with Orlando, the son of one of Duke Frederick’s enemies, during a wrestling match arranged by Orlando’s brother Oliver in order to get rid of him.
Asa result of the wrestling match both Rosalind and Orlando are separately cast out of the court. Rosalind dresses as a man and takes to the forest with Celia, Duke Frederick’s daughter, who disguises herself as Rosalind’s sister, and Touchstone, a jester. Orlando, accompanied by his elderly servant Adam, also takes to the forest, and occupies himself looking for Rosalind and leaving appalling poetry in trees.
Other characters of note are Jacques, a fool/traveller/hermit, shepherds Corin, Silvius and Phoebe, and Audrey, a goatherd, and smaller parts include a vicar, the Spirit of Summer, singers and minor lords.
The set was simple and effective, with a plain white backdrop and flowers, and trees indicated by struts of wood and subtle coloured shadows. Characters were dressed in a combination of Victorian and present-day dress, and the songs (there are more songs in this than in any other Shakespeare play) were folky and traditional with hey nonny nos and contemporary overtones.
Actors, then; what struck me most was the different ways they handled the complex script. There are two ways to read Shakespeare, full on theatrical and naturalistic, and both styles were mingled here with good results. Whilst it was easy to spot the trained actors in this show everyone delivered their lines well and there were very few hiccups.
Helen Langford played a feisty and modern Rosalind (the largest female part in Shakespeare) with admirable principal boy verve and mischief, and Lucy Upward gave a fine performance as her cousin and confidante, Celia. Lewis Cowen was suitably regal and wise as Duke Senior, and Phil Greenaway (in his first Shakespeare role), and Duncan Delmar played Orlando and Silvius respectively in endearingly hapless and lovelorn fashion.
But it was the fools who stole the show for me. There’s a lot about foolishness and wisdom in this play, and it is the fools and the folk of the fields who have the best lines.
‘All the world’s a stage’ muses the melancholy and world-weary Jacques, played by Oli Beech with glorious floridity, and ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool’ says Touchstone, played as a charismatic Northern lad by Daz Beatson.
‘As You Like It’ is full of sage advice on love and life, comedy moments, and fine little intricate speeches. I enjoyed Touchstone’s explanation of the seven causes and Jacques’ performance of the seven ages of man; I laughed at the vicar on the scooter and the phrases ‘country copulatives’ and ‘the horn, the horn, the lusty horn’, at Abigail Newton’s hilarious portrayal of Audrey the clumsy goatherd, at the sheep noises (not sure I was supposed to laugh at that bit), and at Orlando’s terrible poetry; I thought the wrestling was exciting, and the music wistful (credit to Stuart Mayling for his musical and wrestling skills), and I liked the wordplay.
And I looked for the grand themes referred to in my researches on Google.
Echoes of Ecclesiastes, echoes of Arcadia – oh it’s deep enough in places, and the more intellectual types in Shakespeare’s audience would have found plenty to delight them. You could analyse this play till the sheep come home (four centuries of analysis, for goodness’ sake!) but it is predominantly a wild and witty romp, and I think Liz Sharman’s wonderfully lively and watchable production hit exactly the right note.
Shakespeare wrote this for fun, and The Wharf Theatre’s production of ‘As You Like It’ is a fun show.
Shakespeare, fun? Yes, really!
© Gail Foster 11th March 2019
(review and photographs)