In Michael Boyd’s new production of As You Like It, the action moves from the frozen monochrome of a court in crisis to a forest less welcoming than a Siberian tundra. The comedy of Rosalind following her father into exile in the Forest of Arden is often portrayed as a play of riotous thigh slapping and lurid green sets, with plenty of opportunity for flowers, straw, and a strutting “Ganymede” (Rosalind’s male alter-ego; this being Shakespeare, she exchanges her skirt for trousers for much of the play). Instead, the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production finds both savagery and beauty in this beloved Shakespeare play. The result is a compelling exploration of the comedy’s dark heart.
Returning from the Histories season, Boyd and designer Tom Piper create a new aesthetic for the new RSC ensemble. From the blue-ochre blaze of the Histories sets, Piper has moved to a starker, colder look. Initially, the stage is spare, the back of the courtyard dominated by a gleaming silver-white structure of square panels. Its metallic sheen provides a static backdrop to the glittering, inhospitable court that Duke Ferdinand, Orlando and Adam, Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone successively flee.
But then Boyd and Piper unleash destruction on the set: the wrestling bout between Orlando and Charles smears the panels with blood; an enormous ball of straw bursts through double doors—quite literally the forest of Arden. Inside is Richard Katz’s Touchstone, a man with the frizzy grey hair of a clown, with his legs strait-jacketed together. The square panels are opened, battered, or removed altogether, revealing a casual abattoir (a deer hangs from a meathook, coat glistening), dead branches, or a dusty, yellow light. Instead of elegant poems on parchment, Orlando’s sonnets are big black letters on scrappy placards, enormous cardboard panels suspended from the flies or pinned to the pillars and set. In this production, the concepts As You Like It usually conveys with charm—clown, forest, poetry—are pushed to their limits, creating visual shocks that alternately amuse and surprise.
At the end of the interval, Geoffrey Freshwater as Corin guts and skins a real dead rabbit onstage. Detractors may find it too gory, but even the decapitation (a flash of the cleaver while the audience braces itself) is remarkable more for its efficiency than for its horror. The moment is an effective metaphor for a production fighting audience assumptions about this cosy comedy. Boyd’s As You Like It refuses the notion that a big-budget staging has to look safe or beautiful.
Where other productions gloss the play’s darkness to foreground the comedy, Boyd and his cast address the psychological impact of the characters’ experiences. Katy Stephens’s Rosalind is, above all, a woman who has just lost her father, and her performance has the sharpness of raw grief. Rosalind’s love for Orlando is as painful as it is instantaneous, and in the intimacy of the courtyard, it’s a shock to see her stand on the stage with tears in her eyes after the first wooing scene. Rather than looking the part of a wriggling schoolboy, when Stephens cross-dresses to become Ganymede, she turns into a dashing young man. She is the only Rosalind I’ve seen who convinces in the fainting scene, when Rosalind has to endure news of her beloved Orlando’s tussle with a lion, herself dressed as the male Ganymede (a slightly spivvy aesthete in Barbour and moustache). Usually, Rosalind keels over at the briefest flash of Orlando’s blood-stained handkerchief; here, she is forced to stand with the gory white scarf around her neck until the proximity of the blood becomes excruciating. Both of them are fighters, the extent of the blood indicating just how much Orlando had to bear.
Mariah Gale’s Celia is Rosalind’s junior, a princess full of an enthusiasm that renders her vulnerable. Celia is a problematic role: she tends to disappear into the trees as the Rosalind-Orlando relationship takes over. Her own last-minute love plot with Oliver is conveyed in a couple of sentences. Nevertheless, Boyd fleshes out the role with a bizarre, but enjoyable, dream sequence and a well-cast Oliver. As Oliver, Charles Aitken, a veteran of physical theatre companies such as Headlong and Frantic Assembly, echoes Stephens’s Rosalind by rooting his performance in trauma, which stems from a father’s death.
The most memorable performance comes from Forbes Masson as Jacques, the melancholic courtier who masterminds the utopian project of Duke Ferdinand’s exile. Masson plays a gin-soaked Goth with sneering blacked eyes and a purple velvet blazer, faintly ridiculous with his Cuban heels and ginger hair ruffled to the ends. Masson sings with intensity. His tenor is disarmingly icy, like Rufus Wainwright turned malevolent choirboy. There’s a hint of the jilted lover in his sneering, bitter relationship with Clarence Smith’s Duke Ferdinand, the exile who sets out to find “sermons in stones, books in the running brooks”. Ferdinand raises Jacques’s hopes of a utopia in Arden, but by the end of the play, those hopes are dashed. When Duke Ferdinand’s crown is miraculously restored, the company drops to their knees, while Jacques stays standing. His sense of contempt as Ferdinand takes the crown—the lure of power is just too strong for the exiled duke—is palpable; their sylvan dream is shattered. Jacques skulks offstage alone, leaving the festivities he can no longer enjoy.
The members of Boyd’s new ensemble have, in As You Like It, created an almost flawless conception of a fiercely flawed world. This company will perform together until 2011, opening the New Royal Shakespeare Theatre currently being built. Traditionally, acting contracts are much shorter, forcing actors into hothouse collaborations lasting only for the few weeks of rehearsal. The Long Ensemble, together since January, has time to develop intense relationships with one another and with the roles they will reprise in future seasons. The visceral emotion and fierce intelligence of this production suggests that summers in Stratford will be hot for years to come.
As You Like It | dir. Michael Boyd | The Royal Shakespeare Company | The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.