Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 25
2015 marks Bell Shakespeare’s 25th anniversary so it’s a shame that their first production of the year is a disappointment.
Set in the Forest of Arden, As You Like It is a delightful comedy that pokes gleeful fun at romantic love and supposedly idyllic rustic life. It is full of humour – but hardly any of it lands in this production directed by Peter Evans.
The laughs on opening night came mainly from various bits of stage business rather than the comedy in the play itself. Few of the touching or serious moments hit home either.
Michael Hankin’s set features paper flowers on hanging ropes backed by a canvas drape, along with a costume basket and a large ladder, which looks as if it has been left behind by the technical crew (a reference presumably to “all the world’s a stage”).
The staging doesn’t quite capture the romantic nature of the forest where people are changed and relationships healed, and Evans doesn’t manage to create any real sense of a world within it, or outside it. The production instead seems to be a mish-mash with no cohesive visual or performance style, and little unifying vision.
Kelly Ryall’s songs don’t feel as though they emerge organically from the production and Kate Aubrey-Dunn’s costumes, inspired by the 1930s, 50s and 60s, often sit oddly. Orlando appears on stage looking like an insurance salesman in neatly pressed trousers, shirt and brogues, while complaining about his brother keeping him “rustically at home” and having to eat “with his hinds”. Celia sports an elegant coat with fur trim and diamante buttons when she’s supposed to be disguised as a poor country maid. Worse, Rosalind’s disguise as the boy Ganymede consists of tight pants and fitted waistcoat, which actually emphasise her feminine curves.
Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters: strong, clever, witty and resourceful. Banished from her uncle’s court, she comes up with a plan to flee to the forest disguised as the young man Ganymede with her cousin Celia pretending to be Ganymede’s sister. She then hatches a scheme to have Orlando (who has fallen for her, and who has also had to flee to the forest) use Ganymede as a way to practice wooing Rosalind.
Evans’ direction, however, robs the role of nuance and playfulness. Zahra Newman gives us no discernible difference between her Rosalind and Ganymede. All the gender-bending layers and much of the fun are therefore lost in the scenes between Orlando and Ganymede, when Orlando finds himself attracted to the youth.
In Shakespeare’s day, with the all-male casts, the exploration of sexual ambiguity would have been further compounded by having a boy play a girl disguised as a boy. We get none of that here.
Aside from that, Newman handles the language well and after a slightly tentative start is a lively presence.
Charlie Garber looks awkward as Orlando, giving a performance full of the jittery, emotionally detached, comic mannerisms we have seen from him so often before and misses Orlando’s honourable, romantic, dashing and tender sides. Scenes such as Orlando comforting his exhausted, elderly manservant Adam as he goes off to find him food aren’t moving, as they usually are. And there is little chemistry between Garber and Newman.
Evans has chosen not to portray the rustics as country bumpkins. But the decision to have them speak pretty much like the courtiers, without any kind of rural accent, diminishes the divide between the two worlds, and again much of the comedy is lost despite the cast’s best efforts.
As the melancholy Jaques, John Bell delivers a fresh and poignant “Seven Ages of Man” speech while, in one of the standout performances, Kelly Paterniti’s effervescent Celia has welcome heart and depth. Tony Taylor brings a droll charm to the role of Adam and Dorje Swallow impresses as Oliver.
Evans has clearly tried to avoid the tried-and-true tropes of this popular and regularly staged play but in putting them to one side, much of what makes it so delightfully entertaining has been lost.
As You Like It runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until March 28 then tours to the Canberra Theatre Centre, April 7 – 18 and Arts Centre Melbourne, April 23 – May 10
A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 1