By Adam Rafferty
Many of Shakespeare’s comedies feel quite frivolous, but As You Like It is particularly full of froth and bubble, which is not only welcome but heartily needed considering Melbourne’s theatrical drought of the past few months. It’s due to luck more than planning, as the MTC weren’t to know when lockdowns would be lifted in Victoria, but one couldn’t really ask for a greater tonic than this bucolic masterpiece presented by the gifted hands of director Simon Phillips.
For those unfamiliar, As You Like It tells the story of Rosalind (Christie Whelan-Browne) – one of Shakespeare’s precious female protagonists – and her winding path to love, through persecution, exile and disguise. She first sets eyes on the object of her affection, Orlando (James Mackay) as he competes in a wrestling match and wins not only the fight, but her heart. Shortly thereafter, and seemingly without reason, Duke Frederick (Shivantha Wijesinha) banishes her from the court, so she decides to seek shelter in the forest of Arden with her loyal cousin Celia (Georgia Flood) and the court fool Touchstone (Daniel Frederiksen). In order to keep themselves safe and undetected on the road, Rosalind disguises herself as a young man named ‘Ganymede’ and Celia as a shepherdess ‘Aliena’.
Having played Olivia in Phillips’ 2018 MTC production of Twelfth Night, Whelan-Browne is quite familiar with Shakespeare’s gender swapping comedies, but this time she gets to wear the britches, and they fit her superbly. Filled with leading ‘man’ confidence she commands the stage with her stature and then charms us all with her winsome femininity and clear bell-like vocals. She’s perfect casting as Rosalind and she’s well matched by Flood who makes Celia pleasingly characterful. Mackay makes a handsome and charismatic Orlando, somewhat outshone by his leading lady but nonetheless likable and expressive. Frederiksen is an old hand at kooky roles and he lends that experience well to Touchstone, giving him a slight edge of dangerousness that pulls you in.
When Orlando learns of his brother’s unsuccessful plot to have him injured in the fight, it causes him to also seek refuge in the forest where he meets a band of music-loving, exiled courtiers (Rosalind’s father amongst them.) Soon he’s living with them, spending his time writing lovesick poems and pinning them to trees! This merry band of ‘men’ play Shakespeare’s songs as scored by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, a task Phillips astutely engaged them to do for Twelfth Night three years ago, which provided a delightful result. This time around is no less delectable and filled with melodies that uplift the story and the production in a classically modern way that is truly enchanting.
Phillips’ direction is as usual, superb. This is his wheelhouse and we all get to enjoy his masterly skills. Alicia Clements’ costumes are as detailed and wonderful as you could hope and her set design of a ‘grassy knoll’ implanted in, and encased by a neoclassical palace is a sight to behold, worthy of the round of applause it received on opening night. Tom Willis’ lighting design compliments the scenes subtly and beautifully.
As with most Shakespeare plays there are many characters to interact, and the multi-tasking actor musicians, including Chris Ryan, Richard Piper and Xani Kolac, deliver both excellent characterisations and instrumental performances. All these players also mean that no less than four couples find their love connection by story’s end, with romantic sub-plots abounding.
To say this pastoral comedy is focused largely on love would be an understatement. Sure, there’s some political sub-text there if you want to read into it, but right now I think it’s perfectly alright to just sit back and enjoy the soapy fun of this quality production. It’s a wonderful way to reintroduce theatre and sunnier pastures back to Melbourne.
Images: Jeff Busby