I didn’t know this play at
all. Never seen it, never read it. Of course, I kind of know it, because
the Rosalind/Ganymede story is widely discussed and Touchstone and
Jaques famous Shakespearean characters. And its scree is embedded in the
language ‘thereby hangs a tale’, ‘laid on with a trowel’, and of course
‘all the world’s a stage’. But, no, I didn’t really know it.
What do I think of the play? Who cares! I’m an ignoramus and. hey, it’s As You Fucking Like It. But anyway.
Many things startled me about this play.
First, it takes a very long time for the story to get going. The first
two acts are all set-up, sending most of the cast into the Forest of
Arden. It’s all rather delightful and the banishments are variously
enjoyable, cruel, funny, bleak and so on. But it’s only when Orlando
meets ‘Ganymede’ (3.2) that one feels the set-up is beginning to pay
This is understandable because what
really struck me was the remarkable number of stories that Shakespeare
establishes and manages to keep going. There’s Orlando and his brother;
there’s Orlando and Rosalind; there’s the Duke and his Court; there’s
the exiled former Duke and his merry men; there’s Jaques; there’s
Silvius and Phoebe. There are no less than six love stories, requited
and unrequited. As the friend I went with noted, there are two fools, perhaps because, with all this love and all this foolish authority, there is much to make fun of.
It’s massively enjoyable. Orlando
distributing his love letters through the forest, some genuinely funny
stuff with the fools, a beautiful little double act with Rosalind and
Celia, the subplots with the Phoebe, with Audrey, and more, all giving
the play tremendous vigour and muscularity. The production by Michael
Boyd for the RSC is frothy but not escapist and Katy Stephens’s
confident, sexy Rosalind has great support from Mariah Gale’s Celia.
Forbes Masson’s sweet-voiced Jaques is balanced by Richard Katz’s crazy,
wild-haired, unkempt Touchstone.
The ending puzzles me. First, because
the way Rosalind tricks Phoebe into marrying Silvius seems a bit
heartless. Second, the wider political story is solved in such a
ludicrous way. A messenger enters to explain that the Duke was on his
way to the Forest to have his exiled brother killed but met a holy man,
converted to the religious life and has abdicated so he can live in a
monastery. How would a turn-of-the-century audience have responded to
this? What was Shakespeare meaning?
Were they supposed to enjoy it,
panto-like, as one of the magical, absurd, fun things happen in this
enchanted Forest and this enchanted play? Was plausibility a far lesser
consideration than neatness and closure? Would they recognise this as a
kind of classical touch; the last-minute messenger explaining the
intervention of the Gods (think of Phaedrus, Iphigenia
and so on)? Did that express a world view, something about the
capriciousness of fate and chance, the constant possibility of
redemption? Maybe the title is knowingly reassuring: everything will
turn out as you like it to do.
One masterstroke was to have the
epilogue sung rather than sententiously spoken to the audience. This
made it feel as if we were at a celebration of love rather than being
ticked off in some obscure sixteenth-century way. I wondered if there
was an influence of the Rylance-era Shakespeare’s Globe which was
forever blending the curtain call with a merry jig and a bit of a sing.
If so, good for Michael Boyd.
None of this spoiled my enjoyment of the play, I might say. There’s quite a lot of incomprehensible comic satire in here (Touchstone’s description of a quarrel and the various kinds of justice invoked is typical), but somehow the performance carries you through. The characters and actors are all so massively likeable. There are so many changes of focus and story. It’s like electrified froth.