As You Like It
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 29, 2010
It's easy to forget how much tragedy often occurs at the start of Shakespeare's comedies, in light of their charmed, marriage-for-everyone-and-happily-ever-after endings. But Sam Mendes's production of As You Like It dwells longer in and delves deeper into that darkness than most—in ways that are unsettling and intriguing. Using turning seasons as a visual and emotional metaphor for the turns of fate that happen to the characters, this beautifully acted production comes to its sunny, summery, joyful ending fully aware of the fragility and capriciousness of those joys.
The play begins with two families torn apart: Duke Senior has been banished from his kingdom by his usurping brother, Frederick, with Senior's daughter, Rosalind, remaining at court as companion and dearest friend to Frederick's daughter, Celia. But when Frederick suddenly suspects Rosalind of treason, she too is forced into exile, and goes in search of her father in the Forest of Arden, taking both the faithful Celia and Frederick's court fool, Touchstone, with her on her journey.
Meanwhile, Oliver de Boys, oldest son of the deceased Sir Roland, out of an unmanageable jealousy of his youngest brother Orlando, sets Orlando up to be killed in a challenge to the duke's wrestling champion at court. Orlando wins the match, against the odds, but because his father was an ally of the deposed duke, he gets no favor nor reward for his victory—other than a brief encounter with Rosalind, which leaves them desperately in love. Attempting to return home, he learns of his brother's plot to murder him, and, with his father's faithful old servant Adam, Orlando, too, is cast into exile.
Both parties end up lost in a forest of Arden that, in Mendes's imagination and Tom Piper's elegant set, is far from innocently pastoral. It's winter; the trees are bare; everyone is cold and starving and barely able to find their way, with Celia and the elderly Adam, in particular, in terrible shape. The men encamped with Duke Senior, meanwhile (including a few minor lords and the ever-melancholy Jaques, speaker of the play's famous "All the world's a stage" soliloquy), are encamped in the forest making the best of "stubbornness of fortune," relieved to be away from the poisonous personal squabbling of the court while at the same time living rough in the dead of winter. And Duke Frederick is resorting to torturing potential sources of information in his attempts to find his daughter.
Lost in the forest of Arden, Orlando is fortunate enough to stumble upon Duke Senior's camp, while Rosalind (disguised as a young man, Ganymede, with Celia playing "his" sister) ends up buying an impoverished shepherd's cottage and flock. And after these rescues comes the spring—a change of scenery, costumes, and mood. Love blossoms everywhere: not just the ultimate reunion of Rosalind and Orlando (with the expected Shakespearean complications due to her temporarily inhabiting a young man's persona) but also romances for Celia, Touchstone, and the young shepherd Silvius.
As might be expected from director Sam Mendes and the Bridge Project, whose casts bring together top stage actors from both the United States and the United Kingdom, the performances are excellent throughout. Stephen Dillane as Jaques and Juliet Rylance as Rosalind both have the kind of effortless comfort with Shakespeare's language that seems so much more common in British-trained Shakespearean actors, and that gives richness and nuance to every line. In a more idiosyncratic vein, Thomas Sadoski as Touchstone, Jenni Barber as Touchstone's lover Audrey, and Ashlie Atkinson as Phoebe (a country girl who falls in love with Ganymede and instead marries a shepherd when Ganymede is revealed as Rosalind), deliver unconventional and witty interpretations of their comic characters.
As ever with Shakespearean comedy, there's a tidy happy ending—weddings all round, Orlando and his brothers reunited with their feud behind them, and even the usurping duke quietly restoring the crown to its rightful owner. Only Jaques remains untouched by the resurgence of happiness, opting instead for religious seclusion in the Forest of Arden. The cycle of Fortune has turned round again, restoring the old order—but the wintry setting of the earlier parts of the play reminds us that the seasons will turn again, and so might fortune's favor.