Review – As You Like It.
Arden Productions – Melbourne Fringe Festival.
20th September – 4th October, 7pm; Sat 2.30pm & 7pm; Sun 2.30pm & 6pm.
Produced by Denise Hurley.
Directed by Julian Beckedahl.
Music by Joe Gravil.
Costumes by Emma Lockely.
Reviewed by Houston Dunleavy.
When one hears about a Shakespeare production being subjected to yet another re-interpretation, the first thought that can cross your mind is, “Oh no! Not another one!” Since first becoming aware of Shakespeare I’ve seen (and acted in) so many re-castings, re-settings, re-imaginings and re-interpretations that I long to see Julius Caeser in a toga; Macbeth as a king in a castle instead of skinhead in a shopping mall; Hamlet in a set other than the discarded one for “Brideshead Revisited”.
It must be said, though, that this longing to do Shakespeare in another setting, in another style or in another time from its original (and the one in which it is presented) comes from a number of motivations. Probably the universality of Shakespeare’s themes are to blame. We can each read the play and discover in it a connection to our own view of the world. We look at the language and the relationships and see in them the cradle of our own modern thoughts and modes of speech. Shakespeare speaks to us all in different ways, and it is our own view of the world that causes the words to be heard the way we want them to be.
This production does just that. The gender swapping for characters to produce three couples of various combinations – a straight couple, a gay male couple and a lesbian couple – reflects the current debate about the nature of love and the types of relationship commitments that exist in, at least, our urban communities. The choice of a play where gender lines are already blurred is a good one; characters have their genders swapped from the outset (Phoebe become Phoebus, Oliver becomes Olivia, the Dukes become Duchesses). In a play where one of female protagonists spends the entire second act as a young man, this hardly grates at all. Perhaps the only time it does is during the “Seven Ages of Man” speech where there is a constant addition of “woman”, “her”, etc. Whilst this makes sense, dramatically, it throws a small spanner into the internal working of the rhythm of the poetry.
That speech is given not, as it usually is, by Jacques, but by the exiled Duchess (Senya, in this production, rather than Senior). Jacques doesn’t enter the play at all, but his lines are divided up amongst other characters, with most of his famous melancholy being taken up by Monsieur Le Beau (played with immense bravery by Michel Argus, who only took the role on a week before the curtain arose!). This a pity as even this reading of the play needs a foil to parry its message, and, I think, it would have been much stronger and more human to realise that not everyone will be going along for the ride; someone is always left out through deliberate choice. What is to become of that person who won’t join in the dance? That is the only real hole in this re-imagining.
The performances are universally very strong from a tight ensemble. Elisa Armstrong’s “Rosalind” is a character of agency and vulnerability – a difficult combination to manage. Her comic timing and subtlety of face was a highlight for me, as was her change of body language and posture. Darcy Kent’s “Orlando” had possibly a little too much self-awareness and intelligence at times for me. His Orlando seems to know something is up with Gannymede, so why is it such a surprise to him that “he” is really is Rosalind at the end?
Madeleine Stewart’s “Celia” is a good contrast to Rosalind. There is agency here, but Stewart found a coquettishness and mischievous side to the character that gave her space to work in. Tali’s “Olivia” revealed a broken person beneath the privilege, and her subsequent repairing in her relationship with Celia was beautifully portrayed by both actors.
Tatanya des Fontaines-Burns portrayed two very different sisters. This was a mesmerising effort. She is a very good, technically-adept actor. The modulations of voice and body were striking. Tony Adams’s two characters also had clear lines of physical definition. His “Charles”, in particular, was warm and sympathetic, making clear sense of Orlando’s line about him not being a man for these times.
The pairing of James Coley (“Phoebus”) and Will Sutherland (“Silvius”) was full of timing and trust. This relationship, as portrayed in this production, was another highlight for me. It had greater tension that I usually associate with these two characters, who seem to be in this play as “stock” characters rather than have any substance and agency of their own. I felt, for once, that these two characters actually mattered.
Joe Gravil’s music remains somewhat detached from the play’s sense of its own reality. This is not a bad thing. The music creates a new atmosphere. It never attempts to re-tell the story in a musical way, which can be naïve at best, and show a misunderstanding of the nature of music. Instead, the music reinforces that slight toying within the play’s new setting. It smooths out the odder moments of transition where lines are repeated, seemingly to remind the audience of what happened in the last scene, and allows those repeated lines the chance to have somewhere to live.
This is a good production with the right balance of homage to the original and adaption to a current method of viewing the world where the elemental themes of love, power, jealousy and reflection are not lost in the scenery, costumes of or an outlandish setting.
See this show. It’s worth it.