So one can have too much of a good thing. Jessica Ruono’s breezy, funny, disquieting, seventy-five-minute production is no quaintly abridged Lamb Tale. Shakespeare has been edited, to such excellent effect that I can’t remember why I ever thought Touchstone was important.*
As You Like It has always been a profoundly disquieting play. First, the title: as you (the plebeian audience) like it. Uncomplicated, pseudo-literary stock-in-trade, colourful, but hopelessly common. One’s delight upon hearing “all the world’s a stage” is (meant to be) troubled: if you like this sort of thing, what does that make you? Second, the play has been regularly staged since 1740 but its early history’s a blank. A royal permission to stage it was granted in 1669; it’s rumoured to have premièred in 1603 in Wiltshire; but there is no record of any actual production before 1723 (and that was an adaptation). Did ‘they’ not like it, then? Thirdly, the play reads like a surrealist prank: half-nightmare, half-comedy, and another improbable half, subtextual symbolical tragedy.
Beginning with a phantasmagorical—inexplicable as well as implacable—hatred between brothers (that eventually includes an attempted burning-alive-in-bed of one by the other), the play passes on to a parallel, physically less grievous but more far-reaching, crime: the Duke himself is a usurper, who banished his elder brother to the Forest of Arden. (Is fraternal discord a literary motif? A crowd-pleasing piquancy? A representation of perfectly ordinary sibling rivalry run amok in one of Shakespeare’s dreams?)
The Duke’s held on to his niece Rosalind—to entertain his own daughter Celia, out of remorse, or as a hostage, depending on whom you ask and how you interpret gestures, glances, unspoken understandings between the characters. Rosalind and Celia are the best of friends—but the imbalance of power between them is a palpable, though contained, irritant. The Duke finally banishes Rosalind, and Celia elects to share her exile instead of parting from her; and the reader recognises how subtle Shakespeare’s appreciation of such an imbalance is. Celia is sincere, not strong but willing to bear adversity; she is admirable as and in herself. Rosalind, dressed as a man, is transformed. Her intelligence, eloquence, and daring are breathtaking; they are also wholly self-sufficient. She does not need—has never needed—Celia; and Celia has always known it.
In the full-length Shakespearean version Touchstone’s inverted wit, paradoxical witlessness, is a foil against which the women’s saner cleverness is whetted and illumined. In Ruono’s version Suzanne Marie (Rosalind) and Stacy Sobieski (Celia) have no prop—or rather, the function of prop/foil is subsumed in Celia’s character. Sobieski plays her part well: she has an excellent sense of comedic timing and her quips, warm, waspish, and cunning, burst juicily into and out of unsuspected crannies in Rosalind’s seemingly uninterruptable, expansive exuberance.
Marie is spectacular. She begins as a profoundly limp figure (querulous as well as physically prostrate) without a hint of latent potential; one cannot concur with Orlando’s tongue-tied love-at-first-sight at all. But the dashing coat that entitles Rosalind to wear the name of “Jove’s own page, Ganymede,” (modestly skirted and buttoned, but slashed up front and back, a cheerful, toothy grin of a baggy pocket at its side) gives her suavity, confidence, grace, and by god it loosens her tongue.
If there is one overarching fault in this production, it is the awkward, over-earnest, stilted enunciation Andrew Venning (playing Jacques), Matthew Howell (as Orlando), and Tom Hartill (Oliver) begin the play with. (Perhaps it was simply a bad-beginning day, though—or else the hesitance is intentional, meant to heighten one’s unease—since Sobieski and Marie were not much better in the first ten minutes.) But then the action takes off: through the steady-running influence of Bonny Davis’s unflappable, melodious articulation in the diverse persons of Amiens, Adam, a proxy for the Duke and other informative messengers; then of the Forest (marked by a gorgeous ghostly, green-lit, glassy lake in the echoing background of the Rose theatre’s extraordinary excavation site dating back to 1587; by a chicken-wire tree in the fore). And Shakespearean speech becomes the natural, inevitable imperative of the drama. And finally, Venning’s Jacques is unimpeachable with the words—but takes himself too seriously—which is absurd until the body of the wounded deer he was mourning is brought on-stage: it is a woman, and on this startling, piercing note, the metaphorical curtain falls.
*The court jester/ motley fool in As You Like It; cut from this production. He’s the only one of Shakespeare’s Fools to marry.