“O wonderful, wonderful and most wonderful wonderful, and yet again wonderful. . . .”
Celia’s lines from As You Like It were never truer with respect to the Royal National Theatre’s enchanting new production, now being broadcast to grateful audiences around the world. The Forest of Arden was never more magical, and you don’t have to cross the pond to fall under its spell.
Shakespeare’s delightful pastoral tale of love and finding it, not in the constraints of the city or the court but in the freedom of the forest, belongs to the category of what scholars call his “green world’ comedies. Like the fairyland wood in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Forest of Arden is where transformations take place, and where lovers flee the stern, controlling eye of convention to find themselves and each other.
Daring director Polly Findlay and her designer, Lizzie Clachan, have set a new high standard for theatrical imagination. They set the opening of Shakespeare’s 1599 play in a hyper-modern corporate world where workers toil away in an office helmed by a stern CEO (the Duke). Dozens of desks, tables, and chairs clutter the thrust stage, while teams of workers in brightly colored blazer-uniforms toil away on computers.
Then suddenly, there’s a miraculous transformation. When Rosalind, the Duke’s niece, is forced to flee this mechanized world, the stage suddenly darkens, furniture flies up — and presto! Chairs and tables suspended in mid-air become the leafy boughs of the Forest of Arden. Actors hang from these trees making bird calls, or lurk in the shadows simulating the wind and other forest sounds. It’s one of the most thrilling — and liberating — moments in the theater I’ve ever witnessed.
Liberation in an enchanted forest
In such an enchanted forest, no wonder the characters who have fled the court (and the constraints of “how to do Shakespeare properly”) find liberation, too. Rosalind and her cousin Celia catch sight of the adorable Orlando, whom Rosalind met at court and fell in love with at first sight. The feeling is more than mutual, as Orlando is plastering poetic post-its on every “tree” professing his love for Rosalind. Emboldened, Rosalind disguises herself as Ganymede, a youth, who befriends the unsuspecting Orlando (played by the charming Joe Bannister), and sets about to tutor Orlando in the ways to woo a woman.
Rosalind is one of the great proto-feminist roles in the Shakespearean canon (and the one with the most lines). It’s been played by the likes of Maggie Smith, Juliet Stevenson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Rebecca Hall. In this production, Rosalie Craig offers a Rosalind appropriate for 2016: a quintessentially take-charge woman. She’s sharp-tongued, confident, headstrong, and always in control. And of course you get the double delight of disguise, further complicated in Shakespearean times, when Rosalind, performed by a male actor, played a woman disguised as a man. (That’s very 2016, too.)
A hermit who’s a great dancer
The cast is uniformly liberated in this enchanted forest, and uniformly excellent. Patsy Ferran sparkles as Rosalind’s sidekick-cousin Celia; Mark Benton gives great shtick as Touchstone (their court clown and companion in the forest). A special nod goes to Paul Chahidi as Jaques, the melancholy courtier who flees the forest and finds his “inner self” — more trenchant, truculent, and eloquent than ever. Too bad he becomes a hermit at the end – he’s a great dancer.
Orlando Gough’s musical composition is nothing short of inspired. His haunting score — an eclectic blend of folk and modern — is sung by the entire ensemble, to the extent that this production qualifies as a “play with music.” Equally inspired are Findlay’s humorous touches, such as recruiting her entire cast to play a flock of sheep in Arden’s pastures. They crawl around on all fours, wearing white Aran sweaters, “baaaa-ing” like proper sheep, and stealing the show.
If “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” as Jaques’s immortal speech goes, this particular stage is worth visiting. How rare it is when the imagination rules in the theatre and a 500-year-old classic feels fresher than today?
For Mark Cofta's review of Lantern Theater's Spring 2016 production of the play, click here.