Bell Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ is an interesting mish-mash of designs that I’m not completely sure I understood. To start, the set (design by Michael Hankin) is an interesting combination of court and forest; a crown of flowers atop the rafters to contrast with the starkly empty stage below, with only a record player and an old microphone to suggest Bell Shakespeare’s typical design modernities. As the play progresses from the demure court to the Forest of Arden, where the majority of the story occurs, the crown of flowers is pulled down by the cast to become ropes of flowers, darkening the space as though the sun struggles through the treetops to the forest floow below. Lighting (by Paul Jackson) shifts throughout the show from court to forest as well, but also suggests ethereality and placelessness at times, a dreamlike zone in some cases that the characters seem to melt in and out of.
As characters enter and exit the stage, many times with an ethereal accompaniment by a tolling bell, it’s evident that every costume (designs by Kate Aubrey-Dunn) is from a differing era – Rosalind (Zahra Newman) for example is in a broad 50s dress, while her cousin Celia (Kelly Paterniti) is reminiscent of any 60s party girl, with big hair and ridiculously high heels. As Rosalind becomes Ganymede, the strong (but pretty) youth who cares for his sister Celia in the darkness of the jungle, Newman’s costume switches from 50s glamour to a modern day fitted suit reminiscent of Janelle Monáe, an R&B singer known for her androgyny. Unfortunately, there’s no change in Newman’s presence to accompany her costume, she’s just as feminine as she is in a dress, which makes it difficult to accept that everyone else can’t recognise her.
Aside from that, Newman was a good choice as Rosalind, a character notable for being one of Shakespeare’s strongest women. Her natural accent, a mix of American and Australian (borne of her migration to Australia from Jamaica when she was 14), is in stark contrast to some of the rougher Australian accents onstage, which only makes her stand out further from the rest of the cast. Paterniti, as the diminutive Celia, is pleasantly comedic, particularly in scenes where she’s not the focal character, but is dragged into the story by someone else.
Charlie Garber’s Orlando, Rosalind’s lover, is unfortunately weak, twitchy onstage in a way that nobody else is. While he seems earnest, it can be difficult to really believe in his love for Rosalind much of the time, and the occasional yelled line is offputting in a way that similar delivery of lines Gareth Davies’ Touchstone is not. Orlando’s brother Oliver (Dorje Swallow) is missing for the majority of the play, so he doesn’t leave a particularly strong impression, similar to Alan Dukes, who is both the usurping Duke Frederick, and the usurped Duke Senior, living in the Forest of Arden with his merry band.
Touchstone, the play’s fool, is a saving grace in an occasionally dry sea of dialogue. Davies’ enormous stage presence and ridiculously manic mannerisms make him a delight to behold, as he prances among other characters and the hanging forest flowers, interacting with the set, the performers, and the audience in a way that nobody else does. John Bell’s Le Beau, on the other hand, is bizarrely French-accented while the rest of the cast use their native accents, and doesn’t really make an impression. Bell’s Jacques is much more appropriate, as Bell shines in the weary traveller’s role, performing the well-known “All the world’s a stage…” monologue with a dreary cynicism. Tony Taylor’s Adam is a pleasant mix between Le Beau and Touchstone, a butler-type character who, in additional silent scenes, is a pleasure to watch in his capers.
The remaining major characters, Silvius (George Banders) and Phebe (Emily Eskell), shepherds who are struggling with love, are excellent foils to Rosalind and Orlando, but by themselves are relatively shallow characters. Amusing, particularly Eskell’s insistence on her attraction to the not-at-all masculine Newman, but not spectacular. While Kelly Ryall’s songs, as performed by actor/singer Abi Tucker, are a pleasure to listen to, spanning musical eras along with the costumes, they are powerfully out of place. Shakespeare did intend them to be songs – as in, it was not a Bell Shakespeare decision to make a play with music – but they frequently occur out of nowhere and don’t mesh well with the rest of the performance. That aside, Tucker has a stunning voice, and is otherwise an entertaining addition to the cast as Audrey, Touchstone’s bride-to-be, who is less than pleased with his barbed jokes when they’re directed towards her.
Newman’s epilogue, which directly addresses the audience, reminds us that in Shakespeare’s time, Rosalind would have been a young boy, playing a girl, disguised as the boy Ganymede, which is comedic in and of itself. While there is comedy in this particular performance, I feel some things are still lacking. Some actors don’t leave an impression after they’ve walked offstage, while some leave slightly too strong an impression in a somewhat undesirable way. With refining, and perhaps different choices, Peter Evans could perhaps have produced a fine reproduction of As You Like It. As it stands, the show comes across as perplexing, and without the spark it was written with. Entertaining, but dull.