By William Shakespeare Directed by Declan Donnellan Presented by Cheek by Jowl Screening at the Noël Coward Theatre on 16 November 2014
Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod gave a rousing and brief introduction, Declan Donnellan somewhat shell-shocked to already be part of an archive (he’s been doing Cheek by Jowl for 33 years), and that some of the people in the audience hadn’t even been born when this show was originally staged. This particular production was special in all sorts of ways, and its recording by the V&A was an amazing piece of luck and foresight. He’s right about the specialness of this production: my own memory is not good when it comes to even remembering that I’ve seen a show, especially as far back as the 90s. Out of the hundreds of shows I saw during that decade, I remember this one as having an amazing impact on me, for all sorts of reasons. It was a real pleasure to see the film, which reminded me of some of those reasons why it was such a landmark production, and which also in part dispelled my reservations about watching theatre on a two-dimensional screen. Watching the film in the theatre where I saw the show, with a live audience, helped. Also, the living, breathing, moving actors were entirely absent. A certain Adrian Lester was sat in the seat in front of us (with his wife and two daughters), and Scott Handy was a couple of rows away. In fact, enough of the original cast and production team were there to form an impressive lineup on stage and take some well-deserved applause.
But, to what really matters, which is the play itself. The colour- and gender-blind casting of Lester as Rosalind is obviously one of the noteworthy decisions. For me, however, having now seen the play many, many times, more important from a dramatic point of view was the particular interpretation he embodied. Many Rosalinds begin as they mean to go on — the confidence with which this character ends the play is there at the beginning, as Celia almost plays second fiddle from their first scene together. Not so here. Lester’s Rosalind is studious (she wears glasses and always has her head in a book), and deferential towards the more dominant Celia. (Was this one way in for a male actor taking on a female role? To turn down the volume to ensure all traces of maleness were eliminated?)
The really astonishing decision, which perhaps found an easier origin in an all-male company, was to have Rosalind expect to be recognized by Orlando when they first meet in the Forest of Arden, and to be surprised when he doesn’t. She reacts to his blank look with confusion, bitterness, anger, humiliation — a whole mix of emotions excluding humour. In a play with so much to laugh about and at, here is one key moment when there is nothing funny at all, and yet it is a magnificent moment.
The play begins with a now conventional empty space, and the all-male cast all on stage, dressed in black trousers, white shirts and black braces. The first words are (2.7.142–43):
All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players…
There’s a pause after “men” to allow the group to divide, with the male characters moving stage left, and another pause after “women” to allow a much smaller group (Celia and Rosalind) to move stage right.
The first action is Adam washing some brown stuff off the forearms of Orlando as he recounts his unequal treatment at the hands of Oliver (which picks up on the image of the animals on his brother’s dunghills). When Oliver enters, he confirms Orlando’s report, laughing scornfully at Orlando’s request to be allowed “such exercises as may become a gentleman” (1.1.48–49). The very idea!
In a play that celebrates the liberation of pretence, of counterfeiting, Shakespeare also reminds us there is a darker side to our inability to see past appearances. Charles has charitably come to Oliver to warn him that he means to wrestle for his credit, and may injure Orlando. Oliver confides in Charles that “there is not one so young and so villainous this day living” (101–2). This goes against the general impression of Orlando, who is “full of noble device” and “enchantingly beloved” by everyone. Here, in Oliver’s soliloquy — “that I am altogether misprised” (111) — is the motive for his hatred of his brother. (When he himself is “enchantingly beloved” — by Celia — we will witness his character’s reformation.)
The presence of goodness, or beauty, making badness, or plainness, appear even worse than it is is a theme of the play. Duke Frederick himself had to banish his own brother to gain preeminence, and he instructs his own daughter that she suffers in comparison with Rosalind. Mind you, when we first see Celia and Rosalind together, it is Celia who has the upper hand, literally, as she strokes a recumbent Rosalind. Celia seems the clever one, more resourceful (after all, it’s she who suggests escaping the court), and Rosalind is studious, taking notes as Celia talks.
They seem to find Touchstone tedious, or at least neither that interesting nor that funny. They’re much more absorbed in each other, and even have a little ritual which they perform whenever a man is mentioned: they kiss whatever book they’re holding and wave it in a circle twice around their head. It’s as if, to maintain their female friendship, they must ward off all masculinity with a little spell. This generates powerful emotions later.
For now, they must watch that most masculine of all sporting contests, the wrestling. Le Beau neatly arranges the black rope in a circle, to mark out the ring, and Celia, a little petulantly, a little rebelliously, gives one section a sharp kick, making an ugly indent in an otherwise perfect circle.
Celia finds it very funny that Orlando thinks he’s up for this match (1.2.122–23):
You have seen cruel proof of this man’s strength…
She is making fun of all men and their ridiculous attempts to impress women, and seems determined to remain aloof. Rosalind stands aside, still serious, not joining in her friend’s mockery.
The wrestling itself is brilliantly done, with six actors each picking one part of the rope and then rotating as Orlando and Charles really go for it, throwing each other, kicking, gouging and even biting (Orlando anticipating Suarez at one point). The movement of the six actors, who are chanting as well as moving in a circle, provide a dynamism that adds to what can sometimes otherwise seem a tame affair, and a claustrophobia that exaggerates the jeopardy: it’s do or die for Orlando as the world closes in on him.
Duke Frederick is about to present a breathless Orlando with a medal for his achievement, but withholds it when he learns of the victor’s parentage. Celia congratulates him, less than fulsomely (178):
Sir, you have well deserved…
She pats him on the head, as if she doesn’t want to get too close to a sweating man who’s only just put his shirt back on. Her patronizing gesture paves the way for Rosalind taking off her necklace and holding it out to the still-kneeling Orlando, who doesn’t quite know what to do. The pause lets this tableau sink in, and expands the silence in which he fails to speak, until she moves forward and awkwardly places the necklace around his neck, completing the action that her uncle interrupted.
Celia’s strength of character comes through when she speaks truth to power (1.3.63):
It was your pleasure, and your own remorse…
Her father slaps her face for her forthrightness — no wonder she grabs hold of Rosalind’s hand as she makes a passionate defence of her friend (66–69):
… We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together,
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.
Rosalind, however, pulls her hand away, perhaps beginning to see that she will need independence in matters of the heart, anticipating her response to Celia’s question (93):
Shall we be sundered? Shall we part, sweet girl?
Celia, once dominant, now pleads, and shows some vulnerability at the prospect of their separation. One sign of her desperation is her plan to flee the court — she cannot bear to be alone and almost any risk is worth taking.
The banished duke is played as if he hasn’t quite got a full bag of marbles. Kneeling on the floor, he shakes a handful of pebbles and throws them on the ground (2.1.17):
Sermons in stones…
One lord, behind him, puts his head in his hands at this latest folly. Like Touchstone, he has perhaps been led into Arden not entirely willingly.
This head-in-hands gesture is repeated by Celia as she listens, perhaps for the umpteenth time, to Touchstone’s recounting of his love life, of “the cow’s dugs that her pretty chopt hands had milked” (2.4.40) — too much information!
Celia’s initiative has unwittingly handed Rosalind the dominant role: she came up with the escape plan and naturally chose to put herself “in poor and mean attire” (1.3.106), leaving Rosalind the freedom to choose to suit her “all points like a man” (112). It’s comically clear that this occurred to Rosalind in the excitement of the moment and that she hasn’t really thought it through. She is not used to taking the lead, but now circumstances force her to into an unaccustomed role (relative to both her personality and to the expectations of society). When she first speaks to Corin, we see Lester gently adjust his stance, stretching his left leg forward a little to adopt a more manly pose.
Corin isn’t fooled, or at least he seems to sense who’s boss, and sits next to Celia, who is then subjected to a yokel’s drawl more infuriating, and also slightly scary, than Touchstone’s banter. In fact, she takes Touchstone’s hand as security, as she endures Corin’s creepy attention.
We only notice how gloomy the court has been when Orlando enters to the sound of trumpets and the sight of green banners unfurling to represent the trees of Arden (3.2.1):
Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love…
A few lines later he unwittingly reveals a connection to the bookish Rosalind: “these trees shall be my books” (5).
Corin is already measured in his delivery, but he inserts a big fat pause before “sheep” as he reflects “that good pasture makes fat sheep” (the closeup on the grin that slowly and briefly lights up his otherwise grim demeanour gets a big laugh).
Touchstone mocks Corin for his lack of philosophy, but in fact the shepherd sensibly regards manners as context dependent: you don’t behave in court as you would in the country, and vice versa (an observation that was first made, I think, by an actual ancient philosopher).
When Rosalind finally gets confirmation that it’s Orlando who’s been leaving love poems on the trees (her blind spot here anticipating Orlando’s), she almost does a jig around the whole forest (172):
Did he ask for me?
Lester delivers the two simple syllable “such fruit” (182) with such lasciviousness that the adults in the audience laugh and his daughters squirm. As Celia describes him, lying down, “stretched along like a wounded knight” (185), so too does Rosalind lie down, kicking her heels on the floor at the thought of him.
The thought of him is one thing, his reality quite another. She approaches tentatively where he is sitting down. I think the line “I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit play the knave with him” (226–27) was cut, and instead, and for what seems like an eternity while he looks blankly up at her, she looks down at him, inviting him to recognize her, expecting him at any moment to see through her disguise. Her playful expression drains as it dawns on her he really does have no idea who she is, and she simply asks:
Do you hear, forester?
Very well: what would you?
By now she is having to control a rising tide of emotions, which are threatening to turn what should have been a happy reunion into a horrible rejection (is it possible he does recognize her but is choosing to pretend that he doesn’t?).
The next question is put more sharply (229):
I pray you, what is’t o’clock?
It’s a trick question, which enables her follow-up, spoken with some bitterness (231):
Then there is no true lover in the forest…
GBs. Lester gives the word “pain” (244) an extra emphasis, coming as it does at the end of a phrase full of bitter irony:
…he feels no pain…
Rosalind’s anger simmers, surfacing again when a demure, Welsh-speaking Phoebe falls in love with her at first sight, and she has to whisper in her ear that she is “not for all markets” (3.5.61). She leaves Phoebe alone with Silvius, who slumps down in front of his beloved, glad simply to be in her presence. Phoebe delivers her speech on the “pretty youth” (110–34) while looking longingly in Rosalind’s direction, and while fondling and groping an ecstatic Silvius, who can only imagine her caresses are intended for him.
Meanwhile, Rosalind doesn’t quite know what to do when Jaques, who’s in one of his more melancholy moods (and thinking he is Ganymede — the name of Jove’s beautiful pageboy). He moans that his is a special melancholy, all of his own, “compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects” (4.1.12). In fact, he’s depressed because he’s just made a pass at the departing Silvius, who takes the proferred cigarette and continues on his way with a blokish “cheers, mate” attitude. Not at all what the ageing queen was after, who now rests his head in Ganymede’s lap, hoping for a little more affection.
He stands no chance with the appearance of Orlando, but he lingers past his exit, and so Rosalind makes sure there’s no misunderstanding: on “chide God” (25) she places Jaques’s hand inside her doublet to leave him no option but to flounce out, disappointed yet again.
She quickly gets on Orlando’s tits as well, as she cuts too close to the male bone by talking about snails and horns and preventing “the slander of his wife” (43). It’s Orlando’s turn to feel anger, and he slaps Rosalind hard on the cheek.
The strange thing is, Rosalind is actually enjoying the male role so much that, even now that she has the opportunity to “pretend” to be herself with Orlando, she, perhaps unconsciously, continues down the route of laddish banter she began with the reference to cuckoldry. When Orlando asks if she will have him, she replies (81):
Ay, and twenty such.
Orlando is surprised, to say the least, that his future wife might admit to a promiscuous sexual appetite that will not be satisfied with one husband. And why not? If her husband is good, “then, can one desire too much of a good thing?” (85).
This is enough to wind up any man, coming from another man, but it is nothing compared to the next trap Rosalind lays for Orlando, when she imagines him meeting his wife’s wit going to his neighbour’s bed (119–22):
ORLANDO. And what wit could wit have to excuse that?
ROSALIND. Marry, to say she came to seek you there.
This is no merely academic exercise of the imagination, but an exquisitely constructed device to test this potential mate’s commitment to their future relationship, by bringing into the open the real possibility that both partners may be tempted to break that commitment and divert reproductive and economic resources to another party. Dramatically, and brilliantly in this production, it also tests Orlando’s patience to breaking point, so that, when she exclaims “ so, come, death!” (131) he returns on stage giving her a slow hand clap. He has not enjoyed this exchange one bit. Rosalind gives him an earful, warning him not to be “the most pathetical break-promise” (135) and ends with (140–41):
…let time try.
Over and above all vows and promises, it is time that is the ultimate commitment device for long-term mateships: will they be together a year from now, two years, ten?
When they meet Rosalind pauses as if she’s considering whether she should reveal herself. She decides against it, and continues (5.2.41):
Believe then, if you please, that I can do strange things…
They are joined by Phoebe and Silvius, all four snuggling up beneath a blanket as if in bed. Three of these lovers are soon wailing their lot, and Rosalind has to bring them to order (84–85):
Pray you no more of this. ’Tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon.
However, she hasn’t counted on the volatile Phoebe (89):
I will marry you…
Phoebe screams in delight and leaps up at the news, not waiting to hear the condition that follows this promise. Big laugh.
The blanket is soon reused, this time for Touchstone and Audrey and the two pages, who sing “It was a lover and his lass” so beautifully that even Audrey, joining in with her trademark yodel, is compelled to keep time and tune. She also joins in to help out Touchstone’s elaborate explanation of the seventh cause. He gallops through this at a heck of a pace, she chipping in the replies.
The revelation scene is astonishing. When Rosalind speaks to Orlando for the first time as herself, “I am yours” (5.4.90), he turns and walks away. She throws down her bouquet, believing that she is being jilted at the alter and turns to her father. She is mistaken, and Orlando returns, and they kiss, the cast applauding (and Lester’s daughters squirming, again).
The duke presents his ducal medal to Orlando on “potent dukedom” (143), and then Orlando presents the medal to Rosalind, and all kneel before her as their lawful ruler. Celia, with an expression that looks as if she’s sucking on a lemon, reluctantly kneels, and is the first to get up. Meanwhile, Jaques has finally met someone who is prepared to requite his advances: he and Hymen embrace.
Just before this screening, we’d had our first gander round the Witchcraft exhibition at the British Museum, and on the timeless Shakespeare gets a mention: almost every single of his plays contains a reference to witchcraft. As You Like It is no exception, but the way magical words are used implies no endorsement of the supernatural. For example, halfway through the epilogue, Rosalind says (179):
My way is to conjure you…
She conjures with reasons, not with spells. A couple of lines later, Lester removes the earrings and hair band and finishes Rosalind’s speech almost in his own persona. At the very least, several layers of counterfeiting have been removed, and we are gently released back into our own worlds.