Saturday, April 11, 2015

As You Like It - Bell Shakespeare

Review by John Lombard

At the end of the play, with all plots resolved and all couples united, the melancholy philosopher Jacques (John Bell) takes his leave of the wedding party - these scenes of merryment are not for him. But as John Bell's final production with the theatre company he founded, the scene took on a symbolic meaning for the audience: this was a graceful exit, a formal leave-taking for Australia's greatest populariser of Shakepeare.

As You Like It itself is one of Shakespeare's silliest plays, and director Peter Evans' production does not scrimp on the fun. The paranoid Duke Senior (the aptly named Alan Dukes, who also doubles as the good Duke Frederick) has been over-eager with banishment and confiscation of property to the point where most nice people have all taken refuge in the nearby Forest of Arden. Arden is an Edenic idyll where people while away their time with feasts and companionship, and the only real problem is a forest-wide spate of bad love poetry.

Most of the bad love poetry is from Orlando (Charlie Garber), a hard done-by youth hiding in the forest from his jealous and potentially murderous older brother Oliver (Dorje Swallow). The object of his affection is Rosalind (Zahra Newman), the freshly exiled daughter of Duke Frederick now hiding in the forest diguised as a man - although being disguised as a man doesn't stop her from wooing Orlando. Rosalind's two companions are Duke Senior's pampered but good-hearted daughter Celia (Kelly Paterniti) and the court fool Touchstone (Gareth Davies).

The plot itself is a contrivance for getting all of the main characters into the forest. Reflecting this, the set initially seems unfinished: canvass sheets and a paint-flecked ladder suggesting a work in progress. But when the transition to the forest happens ropes of flowers fall from the sky, creating a tangled rope-maze of love that the heroes have to navigate.

With most of the plot busywork out of the way, the play becomes a comic romp. Newman's Rosalind is very physical, delighting in the freedom of movement her masculine diguise gives her. But all of the cast find the joy in the script. Even John Bell's Jacques cannot dampen the fun, finding sardonic glee in his private games. But Davies' Touchstone is the true achievement: the courtly fool is burdened with some of the dreariest jokes in Shakespeare, but Davies rises above the material by making him a motley wildman (with just a touch of Jack Nicholson in The Shining).

As You Like It is a play where things just work out. Love at first sight is always true, even unrequited love is ultimately requited, and the villains spontaneously reform offstage. Bell Shakespeare's production captures the joy and silliness of being in love: "If thou rememb’rest not the slightest folly that ever love did make thee run into, thou hast not loved." Love makes everyone an idiot, but perhaps it's wise to be a fool sometimes: this production teaches us the wisdom of our sacred follies.