Shakespeare’s popular pastoral play about betrayal and deception, love and enlightenment, “As You Like It,” is nothing without an enchanting Rosalind. Fortunately for the sparkling Theater Royal Bath production, stopping at BAM before heading to L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater, Rebecca Hall amply delivers on that count. In fact, under the guidance of her father, venerable director Peter Hall, this endlessly witty, emotionally resonant retelling delivers on all counts. Production is carried aloft by the considered perfs of an ensemble that eloquently coaxes the humor and the darker hues from the comedy, and by the inventive economy of John Gunter’s design.
There’s something singularly rewarding about seeing Shakespeare wrangled by a director with little to prove. The comedies especially tend to fall prey to directors and casts who strain to summon contemporary relevance or to enliven the language with forced effusiveness. (Kenneth Branagh’s overexcited romp “Much Ado About Nothing” is one example.)
Hall’s trust in the text is implicit in the graciousness and fluidity of his approach, as it is in the superb work of the cast members, many of whom have joined the production since its brief 2003 U.S. tour. There’s little declaiming here — aside perhaps from Philip Voss’ Jaques, whose imperious cynicism calls for exactly that. The actors bring a natural, conversational ease to the dialogue that shows an unimpeded grasp of the language, a refusal to be intimidated by its intricate structures and, yet, an innate respect for its rhythms and its frequent detours into verse. The British cast’s impeccable command of character-defining accents is another asset that often escapes American actors playing Shakespeare.
One of the Bard’s most contrived plays, “As You Like It” can be bogged down by the frustration of Rosalind’s insistence on maintaining anonymity and her masculine disguise long after her love for Orlando has been sufficiently affirmed to enable exposure. Although this production, running at three hours-plus, doesn’t entirely avoid the usual post-intermission longueurs, the depth of understanding both Halls have brought to Rosalind grounds her cautiousness in fear and unreadiness for the kind of madness love represents to her. Her blossoming in the forest from giddy romance to emotional maturity is a process that refuses to be hurried.
Even that most Hollywood of endings — with a quadruple wedding, cads turned overnight to saints and injustices swiftly reversed — soars here, the release of the characters underscored by the magical atmosphere of the Forest of Arden, steadily transformed from darkness to light.
Rebecca Hall brings the requisite pluckiness to Rosalind. But it’s her underlying uncertainty, apprehensiveness and circumspect alertness that make the performance so distinctive, giving credence not only to the young woman tentatively accepting love, but also to the wily matchmaker toying with the romantic fates of others. Her tangle of emotions upon learning the poetic tributes decorating the forest are penned by her dreamboat, Orlando, is just one of many lovely moments in which the young actress shows an uncalculated charm that’s entirely disarming. With her willowy figure (Rosalind’s description as “more than common tall” has rarely been more apt) and even-featured, slightly androgynous beauty, her cross-dressing disguise as fresh-faced youth Ganymede, while steeped in theatrical artifice, is persuasive.
But to dwell on Hall’s performance is to undervalue the fine ensemble work. In a breezily confident professional debut, Dan Stevens’ Orlando is a sweet, swooning lad whose callowness is offset by surprising strength both of physique and of character, bred by the abuse he has taken from his callous brother Oliver, played by Freddie Stevenson, who convincingly negotiates one of the play’s most fanciful moral turnarounds.
So often little more than a tittering onlooker for much of the action, Rosalind’s beloved “coz” Celia is given feistiness and moral fortitude by Rebecca Callard, her diminutive size amusingly pegged against Hall’s lanky frame. Rather than just simpering on the sidelines, this whip-smart Celia, as her forest alter ego Aliena, looks on with disapproving impatience at Rosalind/Ganymede’s protracted game-playing.
As the shepherd couple whose bumpy path to wedlock is obstructed when quarrelsome Phoebe becomes bewitched by Ganymede, David Birkin and Charlotte Parry are funny and endearing. As rude country wench Audrey, Janet Greaves brings a West Country lustiness that seems to be a warm-spirited nod to the production’s original home in Bath. A constant delight with his droll delivery and horny wickedness, Michael Siberry’s Touchstone finds the spry wisdom in the court jester who adapts with brio to rural living.
Playing both the usurping Duke Frederick and his banished brother, James Laurenson ably presents a cruel despot and an idealistic, profoundly decent man, whose scenes with his fellow exiles in the forest have a strong sense of community that furthers the comedy’s weighing of cheerful al fresco life vs. oppressive court society.
Smoothly adapted to fit the Harvey Theater’s cavernous space, Gunter’s spare design uses a simple square of carpeting downstage to redefine locations — rough turf for Orlando’s wrestling match, royal red for the court, a white sheet for the forest in winter and green lawn for spring. The forest itself is vividly rendered with simple tree silhouettes and projections, subtly modulated through the change of seasons along with Peter Mumford’s lustrous lighting. The staging is enhanced also by Peter Hall’s insistence on providing student-price, picnic-style floor seating, which places audience members at the feet of the actors and suggests the very Shakespearean idea of theater for the people.
Mirroring the same unhindered boldness that illuminates this limber, perceptive production as a whole, Gunter’s costumes liberally mix period and contemporary dress, nattily identifying characters with such eccentric touches as Phoebe’s floral boots, Touchstone’s patchwork brocade coat and busy golfing checks, Oliver’s Dior-style slinky black suit, the fascistic beatnik uniforms of Duke Frederick’s courtiers, the Chelsea muscle-boy look of wrestler Charles and Celia’s crunchy-granola garb as she transforms into Aliena.