Forget Dr. Phil. For entertainment full of perspective, humor and humanity, look to Rebecca Hall’s wise and wonderful Rosalind in Peter Hall’s Theater Royal, Bath, production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” receiving its U.S. bow in Connecticut before continuing on to Boston and Columbus, Ohio. Audiences also will be smitten by a first-rate cast in a beautifully acted, traditionally conceived production that’s long on integrity, if short on production values. Although Shakespeare’s most sublime and big-hearted comedy ends in a quadruple marriage ceremony, getting to that rapturous moment is not always easy. Many a production has been foiled by a heavy hand or a superficial polish, or by a boring Rosalind or a bland Orlando. Hall and company play it by the book, combining immense respect for the spoken word with sincere depth of feeling.
There is no winning production of this play without a beguiling Rosalind, and 21-year-old Hall — the director’s daughter — gives a performance that puts her deservedly in the center spotlight. Her exuberant, confident and natural Rosalind is a woman who almost has everything figured out; she just needs to go into the woods to gain some perspective — and some freedom. Only toward the end of the second act does Hall’s perf — and the production — lose some steam, but she rallies and regains her poise and self-possession in time to orchestrate the finale.
The audience’s infatuation doesn’t end there. Joseph Millson’s Orlando is a revelation. Instead of being an amiable guy who gets lost in the foliage, Millson creates an Orlando worthy of Rosalind: a goodhearted suitor who is handsome, charming, eager-to-learn and, above all, passionate in everything he does. The chemistry between the two is palpable, so their instant attraction becomes as understandable as it is obvious.
Rebecca Callard’s Celia — diminutive next to the tall stalk that is Hall — is perky but no fool. Though Rosalind is the cousin in command, Callard’s feisty Celia shows she can propel a plot as well.
The old Brit pros also show how it’s done: Michael Siberry’s Touchstone is a hilarious cynic cruising the woods (reminding one of John Laroquette, if he were to ever take his comedy seriously). Philip Voss’ Jaques has the resonating reassurance of knowing his place in the melancholy universe — and knowing it’s time to leave when Arden’s winter turns to bloom. David Yelland gives a fine pair of perfs, as both the usurper Duke and his banished brother, who has found peace in exile, a Dalai Lama of the forest. Nigel Pegram’s Adam touches the heart, and his drunken clergyman is a delicious bit of vaudeville.
Even smaller parts are spot-on. Glenn Carter makes the switch from villainous sibling Oliver to reformed brother credible, while Amanda Symonds’ bountiful Audrey is a not-so-innocent joy. David Birkin’s Silvius is simplicity itself. James Crossley’s Charles is not just an Elizabethan the Rock but a clever courtier whose smarts as well as strengths know no bounds.
One down note in the show, however, is the limited production values. Designer John Gunter does well with a spare set, but one wonders what he would do if he could make the court more regal and the woods more lush. In this production, one can see the trees from the forest, all three of them. Peter Mumford lights the barren spaces well with warmth — or more coolly for the wintertime chills. Mick Sands makes the most of the musical moments. For Rosalind’s transformation from court daughter to forest refuge, Hall is charmingly dressed in a floppy Fedora and loose-fitting, contemporary clothes — Arden must be near a mall.