The word delightful seems appropriate to describe Belvoir’s production of As You Like It. Director, Eamon Flack has done a lovely job in breathing life into Shakespeare’s comedy by playing with space, mood, design and even taking small liberties with the text but completely in keeping with the style of the play. This is a great example of the successful marriage between dramaturg and director in Flack’s staging, in what is best described as an engaging performance for his audience and sustaining it all the way through.
The first act of As You Like It opens unconventionally using every entrance and exit as possible and endowing a sense of intimacy with audience, especially when Alison Bell’s Rosalind crosses through one particular row to strike up an awkward flirt with Ashley Zuckerman’s Orlando. Transforming the space in this way for the court scenes is a clever contrast to the later pastoral scenes using the stage and makes us realise that perhaps we as audience are part of this courtly urban, contemporary (and corruptable) world. This contrast is also found in the rhythms of the play, as the hurried establishing scenes and subsequent banishments of those who are threat to power, like a Labor Party meeting room, seem to fly like a bullet before the neon greenery of Arden explodes, or dare I say ejaculates, onto the stage and the pace suddenly grinds into a rural retreat of relaxation. We seem to hit a real turning point in the play, where a post-coital cigarette wouldn’t go astray as the languid life of the play takes on a new rhythm. Silence is hardly found in that first act and now the beautiful use of it is found throughout the next two Acts until we start to hurtle towards the reveal of disguise and the pace must pick up once again.
There never feels like a moment when Flack and his excellent cast (and I include all of them in this) and creative team are not in control of this play. The doubling up of cast and gender switch are used creatively and appropriately and this play has lent itself to Flack taking comic liberty with this idea. Gareth Davies in that wedding dress is played to great comic effect whereas Shelly Lauman’s Silvius is a much more grounded interpretation. Flack understands the world and style of the play and has not been afraid to explore a contemporary, free-spirited take on Shakespeare’s comedy. Nothing highlights this more than the use of “sheep”, especially on returning from interval and seeing many of the cast dressed in their sheep’s clothing, grazing away and jumping out on unsuspecting audience members, much to the delight of those already in the audience who could fully relish the dramatic irony of what was about to take place. The subsequent shearing of the sheep, returning via a springboard onto the stage and the final entrance of the ‘black’ sheep had us all firmly in the palm of the director’s hands. This was a very clever device and I would defy anyone not to have experienced sheer joy in those moments.
The energy and lightness of the play, including transformations from villains to heroes, all in the name of love, was completely captured in Belvoir’s staging of As You Like It. The music was also a real strength in imbuing mood and style- the soundtrack of the singing and music and composition work of Stefan Gregory was skilfully executed in complementing the mise en scene of the play. Damien Cooper’s manipulation of lighting also aided in capturing the locations and rhythms of the design and settings. By keeping the lights on all the audience initially made us all part of this play and it was a pleasure to be in it and serves as contrast to the steady creep of darkness in later Acts.
Had I seen this play before I crafted my top five picks for the year, As You Like It would have been a contender. I think this production appeals to all ages and you would certainly have to be filled with the spirit of the Christmas Grinch not to have enjoyed it. For those keen to see how you can play with Shakespeare’s comedies and make it current and light, this is a must.