The MTC’s production of  As You Like It is burdened by heavy direction and a preponderance of song. By Alison Croggon.

As You Like It

Richard Piper, Christie Whelan Browne, Daniel Frederiksen (rear) and Georgia Flood on stage.
Richard Piper, Christie Whelan Browne, Daniel Frederiksen (rear) and Georgia Flood on stage.
Credit: Jeff Busby

Melbourne winter is routinely bleak, but this year it felt endless. It’s been a year, right? A year in which we finally understood – as the pandemic cloistered our lives, La Niña extended grey skies well into November and our stages remained dark and empty – that crisis is now a permanent part of our lives.

I’m so ready for sparkling nonsense: for delight, wit, escapism, the fantasy of order happily restored. You’d think, in fact, that I’d be primed for Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It, where estranged lovers pursue each other through an enchanted forest and reunite in an orgy of marriages.

Certainly, crowd-pleasing escapism is the thinking behind Simon Phillips’ production at the Melbourne Theatre Company, their first show back from a ruinous year of lockdowns. But as I left the theatre, wilting from almost three hours of heavy-handed stage business and an endless profusion of gilt, I couldn’t help reflecting that the greater part of “delight” is the word “light”. For all its luscious illumination, there’s precious little lightness in this production.

As You Like It was written in a world also beset by plague and social unrest. The first reference to the play is in 1600, when it was entered into the Stationers’ Register in London “to be staied” – a formal assertion of copyright – and there is second-hand evidence of a 1603 revival at Lady Pembroke’s country seat in Wiltshire to which James I – then in court at Salisbury to avoid the plague in London – was invited to see a performance overseen by Shakespeare himself.

Aside from its single publication in 1623, there’s not a lot of evidence that As You Like It was as popular in its time as, for example, Much Ado About Nothing. It dropped out of view for a century and was finally performed in something close to its original form in 1740 in Drury Lane. George Bernard Shaw later had stern things to say about it, claiming it was one of Shakespeare’s more inferior works. It’s certainly fair to say that the convoluted plot doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it has proved enduringly popular over the centuries, and with its quarrelling couples and multiple marriages is one of the classic models – via later stage comedies and books such as Pride and Prejudice – for the contemporary rom-com.

It’s also notable for the number of songs that punctuate the text. Phillips, whose greater interest in recent years has been in musicals, picked up this cue and ran with it: the original six songs are multiplied, popping up between scenes even when songs are not indicated, and wreaking havoc with the dramaturgy. Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s folk adaptations dominate not only the feel of the production but its form, shifting its emphasis to the modern musical. This isn’t the only way the play feels skewed.

The centre of this play is Rosalind (Christie Whelan Browne) – along with Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s most delightful heroines. When the play opens Rosalind is effectively a captive in the court of Duke Frederick, who has usurped his brother Duke Senior’s title (both roles played with vivid elan by Shivantha Wijesinha), as the dear companion of Frederick’s daughter Celia (Georgia Flood). At court she meets Orlando (James Mackay) and the two are instantly stricken by love. However, Orlando’s brother Oliver (Chris Ryan) plots to kill him and he is forced to flee the court, just as Rosalind is banished by the wicked Duke.

Rosalind disguises herself as the youth Ganymede and flees to the Forest of Arden – the site of many of Shakespeare’s pastoral fantasies – with Celia, who can’t bear to part with her, and the Duke’s Fool, Touchstone (Daniel Frederiksen). Also hiding in the forest are Duke Senior, living the greenwood life with a literal band of merry men, and Orlando, who has fled with his faithful old retainer, Adam (Richard Piper). Naturally the lovers meet, and the central scenes are where Rosalind-as-Ganymede persuades Orlando to woo them as if they are Rosalind herself, mockingly interrogating the ideals of romantic love.

Alicia Clements’ ornate design, beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper, makes great play of contrast. The wicked Duke’s court is all looming black columns and black 18th-century frockcoats stiff with gold embroidery. For the greenwood a scrim lifts, revealing a hallucinatory scene that looks like a cross between Rivendell and some kind of 1970s folk fantasy. A band adorned with long elvish wigs disport themselves in white frockcoats (with the necessary gilt edgings) on a bank of greenery. There’s a white grand piano, a drum kit and violins. There is a profusion of golden candelabra – no Phillips production is complete without at least two – and there are songs. So many songs.

What is lost in the design is, bizarrely, the contrast between forest and court: this Arden remains enclosed in black columns, an artificial glade that’s more like a greenhouse than the greenwood. Perhaps this over-the-top design might have worked had there been some attention to the meaning of the play.

Shakespeare’s comedies oscillate between light and darkness, meaning and nonsense, weaving these impulses together into a volatile texture of delight. But the heavy symbolism at work in the design extends into the performances, which tend to declamation and a continual – and cumulatively tiring – physical comedy that too often is simply mugging. As Touchstone, Frederiksen hits the mark most often, but he is supposed to be a Fool. I’m all for a bit of stage business, but this production is very one-note. It tramples the play of Rosalind and Orlando’s dialogue, which – unusually – is written in prose, signalling conversational nuance and subtlety. Most grievously, this has the effect of reducing Rosalind to a side player.

The real centre of this production is the melancholic philosopher Jaques (Tim Walter), the pessimistic counter to Touchstone’s cynical optimism. He’s often played with a grain of salt, as when Rosalind makes fun of his affectations, but here he’s presented as the philosophical centre of the play. The cast gathers reverentially to listen to his wisdom, while Rosalind’s bright challenges to the patriarchal order are all but entirely dimmed.

As a result, the play on gender that’s central to As You Like It – and much of Rosalind’s charm as a Shakespearean heroine – is pushed into the background. This is clearest in the decision to close with a song from an entirely different play, Twelfth Night, instead of Rosalind’s epilogue – “my way is to conjure you; and I’ll begin with the women”. Just as the greenwood is imprisoned inside the court, so this play’s mischievous freedoms are slammed shut by its strangely conservative interpretation. 

As You Like It plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until December 18.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "As I didn’t".

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Alison Croggon is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.

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