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Who Am I, Anyway? Changing Natures in the Forest of Arden

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"As You Like It" is considered a romantic comedy, and it certainly has the right “boy meets girl” ingredients. In fact, by the end of the play four boys meet girls. But though the relationship of the central couple, Rosalind and Orlando, is a core element in the work, and is heard in a minor key in the wooings of the three other couples, Michael Boyd’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company reminds us that all kinds of love are on offer here. There is parental love, filial love, the love of servant for master, and vice versa; there is instant love, devoted love, rejected love — and all of them are put to the test in the Forest of Arden.

Arden has a literal function in the plot — it is the wilderness to which exiled Duke Ferdinand; banished Rosalind, and disenfranchised Orlando go when they are denied their proper roles in society. And it is the home of the play’s various rustic characters.

But the Forest — gnarly and a little inhospitable in this production — also functions symbolically. Shakespeare was drawing on — and sending up — the classical pastoral tradition, which features rural life in an idealized form, and presents nature as a sort of stage (this is the “all the world’s a —” play, remember?) for adventure and transformation. Boyd says that one of his epiphanies about how to approach the production came when he viewed it chronologically (it was written in 1599): “So I had this simple binary hunch that it was 'Hamlet' and 'Midsummer Night’s Dream' in collision.”

“Hamlet” supplied Rosalind’s dilemma (usurping uncle) without Hamlet’s tragic destiny. “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” written some three years earlier, contributes the concept of healing and transforming nature — this time without any magical intervention — and allows for the exploration of the play’s main themes: what is love? What constitutes a person’s identity, and how much of that is inherent, and inviolate? 

Rosalind and Orlando, the heroine and hero of this piece, are naturally honest and kind. So is Adam the servant, Corin the shepherd, and Duke Ferdinand. Conversely the “bad” (but not unredeemable) guys, Orlando’s brother Oliver and Ferdinand’s brother Frederick, are obsessed by status, mean spirited, and imagine plots everywhere. We know them by their body English: they are elaborately dressed, hold themselves stiffly and self-consciously, and crane their necks like dromedaries.

In the woods, characters discard gender and deportment, thus discovering unexpected aspects of themselves: throughout this play Nature reveals nature. Class lines are blurred, too — we see this in the comic but resonant mirroring of Orlando and Rosalind’s affections in Touchstone and Audrey; Silvius and Phoebe; and eventually Oliver and Celia.

“As You Like It” is among the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays, but it does present some challenges. It is crowded with characters, some of whom — like Touchstone the fool and Jacques, the melancholic — seem to be there just to comment on the action, or provide self-contained “routines.” The plot involves four different sets of people (the program lists them as “The de Boys Household”; “The Court”, “The Exiled Court”; and “The Forest Dwellers”). The action shifts episodically from group to group, so we don’t get to know anyone other than the principals very well, and it’s hard to grasp the through line. Boyd’s solution to this fragmentation is to impose a kind of meta meaning on the piece that takes the form of choreographed sequences in which the key characters, stripped of their contexts, perform surreal drilll-like manoeuvres that frame each act. 

I think this is meant to represent the way social and political dynamics are a form of loose energy waiting to take shape. The construct gives the play elegance and boldness, and is convincing almost everywhere except in a dream sequence given to Rosalind’s chum Celia, in which the ensemble wear stag horns, and rotate her in midair (a common phenomenon in dreams.) Because Celia is otherwise played completely naturalistically, and simply doesn’t have a lot of psychological mass in the play, the effect is a little forced. (In the spooky morass of dream interpretation sites on the Internet, I did find one that said horns represent “confrontation and conflict” — in this case, possibly the conflict of the ordered society from which the characters have become detached, and the natural world in which they find themselves.)

Other flirtations between the literal and non-literal are designed to exploit the RSC’s new “thrust” stage, which has been recreated in the armory. It extends right into the audience on three sides, offering opportunities to draw spectators into the action. This production further erodes the fourth wall by using the whole theater space as the Forest of Arden. Poor Orlando’s much-mocked poetry is literally hung all over the seating area in the form of crude hand lettered signs — the effect is something between graffiti and performance art.

There is also an inspired melding of eras in a form both more flagrant and more subtle than a simple transposition (i.e., a “Victorian” or “Jazz Age” setting).  The costumes — especially those for Duke Ferdinand’s retinue—suggest 19th-century Russia, but Touchstone’s goofy country girlfriend Audrey appears for her mock wedding in four-inch heels (off of which she falls, frequently) and Rosalind’s buoyant floral wedding dress is reminiscent of the Dior New Look. 

The temporal fusion is not limited to costuming — instead, any individual scene might be colored by a sense of a different era. Most effectively, Jacques, in an hilarious serpentine performance by Forbes Masson, is presented as a kind of self-obsessed, would-be pop star, ever ready with an awful warble. (Imagine Gilbert & Sullivan’s Bunthorne combined with Barry Manilow.)

The RSC ensemble has been presenting "As You Like It" on and off for two-and-a-half years, and the performances demonstrate a balance between maturity and freshness. Jonjo O’Neill, who plays Orlando, commented (in an interview with this writer) that he and Katy Stephens (Rosalind) have “been together and probably spoken more words to each other than a lot of modern marriages. You know, that’s kind of a significant relationship — having to fall in love with someone a hundred times.”  For the audience this reads as physical ease sweetly colored by emotional uncertainty. As soon as Rosalind touches Orlando (Stephens incorporates an amazed “Oh” at the moment) they know they are meant for each other. The rest of the play is taken up with them finding a lasting way to convey this — for impetuous Orlando to learn to shape his thoughts, and for rational Rosalind to give way to feeling.

Katy Stephens confidently projects Rosalind’s appealing combination of trenchant wit and suppressed sensuality. Mariah Gale, who is also this company’s Juliet, wrests the often pallid Celia from Rosalind’s shadow by making her loving, but selfish, and demonstrating a strong sense of mischief. O’Neill deftly navigates between Orlando’s pride — because he has been socially degraded he must prove himself to everyone — and a natural open-heartedness.

Richard Katz’s Touchstone has more human dimension than is often shown in this character — the sense is of a pro out of his element, and not at all sure that his particular bag of tricks is going to cut it in the Forest of Arden. Clarence Smith conveys warmth and dignity as Duke Ferdinand, and Charles Aitken has fun with the petulant knavery of Oliver de Boys. 

Post-modernists did not invent the ironic form of allowing a work to recognize its own conventions — there are many examples in this play, including Oliver’s impatient response when Orlando questions his instant infatuation with Celia: “Neither call the giddiness of it into question, the poverty of her, the small acquaintance, my sudden wooing, nor her sudden consenting…”  I have always felt this is the playwright speaking directly to us, and asking us to trust his use of comic convention: “It’s Act 5 everyone, and time to wrap things up.”

The play usually ends with a much discussed acknowledgment of the fourth wall — the actor playing Rosalind’s epilogue in which he/she (female roles were of course played by boy actors) asks the audience for their approval. Michael Boyd has chosen instead to go for joyous simplicity. There is a country dance linking all the characters, as the restored Duke Ferdinand urges the wedding guests “forget this new-fallen dignity/And fall into our rustic revelry.” 

Then, the last plot lines are tied up, and there are only Orlando and Rosalind left on stage. Her formal epilogue has been replaced by a reworked version of the traditional Irish song “The Parting Glass,” which is sung both to her lover, now perched in a “tree” watching her (“forgive the veils I wore, I wore them for the love of thee”) and to the audience (“Good night and joy be with you all.”) It is a reminder that the play, like all effective drama, is a two-sided mirror, reflecting the action within, and the world without.   

“As You Like It” is part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s season at the Park Avenue Armory, which will run through August 14.