“All The World’s A Stage”
Director Kimberley Sykes combines pantomime, audience interaction, puppetry and musical elements to create a fantastical, almost Brechtian approach to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of As You Like It.
For the past eleven weeks, I’ve constantly been reminded in lectures and seminars that Shakespeare’s plays are texts that were written with the intention to be performed on a stage, not to be read in a classroom. My Shakespeare: Perspectives module’s two-day trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon proved that there’s more to the Bard’s plays than just text to be analysed. Shakespeare’s plays offer escapism, a chance to get away from reality with friends or family and I was lucky enough to escape to the Forest of Arden in the most recent production of As You Like It.
When I read the play for university, I didn’t find it particularly funny despite its genre being a comedy. Spending a few hours of my day reading it to myself, the jokes simply did not stand out to me in a way that caused me to have tears in my eyes from laughter. When I went to see current production at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) theatre, it was a completely different experience. I found myself wiping at my cheeks and laughing along with everyone else. It emphasised that there’s more to a play than just lines and dialogue – how it’s acted also plays a huge part. Le Beau attempting to walk on a patch of grass centre stage in heels and failing in a slapstick manner, Touchstone climbing down from a higher bit of the stage with a suitcase balanced by the handle on the end of one foot (which earned a gasp followed by an applause), or Celia covering herself with a layer of her grey skirt to disguise herself as a rock only to be sat on by Jaques are not stage directions written by Shakespeare himself, but are instead choices made by cast and crew, and brilliant choices they were. It showed that the physicality of theatre can be done in a way which highlights the tone of the play.
Although I am an English Literature student, I have always had a passion for theatre. In particular, I have had an interest mostly in Brecht and his Epic Theatre. While watching Kimberly Sykes’ take on the Shakespearean comedy, I found myself noticing certain Brechtian elements within the production. With minimal set design, the court was a small patch of fake grass that gained a rope barrier around it for the wrestling scene while the forest lost this and became an open space. The transition between these two meant that the court was disassembled with a falling of the black backdrop, revealing behind the stage and creating the Forest of Arden. While watching, I realised that the minimal setting and props did not mean that you could not tell apart the different places. Though those who prefer traditional theatre would’ve found this unnerving and believed it to break the fourth wall or the illusion of the play, I found that it actually helped the play.
The lack of setting also boosted my focus of the actors onstage (and, at times, offstage as some front row audience members found Rosalind and Celia jumping down to join them). It meant that I was less distracted by new scenes and could watch the actors more. Not only this, but the lack of setting meant that what props and staging was used was even more memorable. Whether it was a disco ball being lowered from the ceiling as Orlando sings and dances with joy while proclaiming his love for Rosalind, or something as simple as the inhabitants of Arden bringing on large cushions to sit down, the small amount of detail that was used was done so in a way that allowed the audience to focus on the acting, instead of having to be accustomed to new scenery. The settings were also used to set moods. For example, the disco ball created a moment of comedy as we laughed along to Orlando’s love-struck actions. Sykes’ production seemed to really want to break away from traditional theatre because it wanted you to focus on the play, not the surroundings. The surroundings became secondary, a luxury almost.
Out of the few props that were used, the most memorable prop was Hymen. The character has no involvement in the play until the very end, when they come on to marry the four couples. In this production, a giant rustic puppet was wheeled onto the stage and engineered by the minor characters. Instead of speaking the character’s lines, they are sung by those controlling it, sounding not too dissimilar from the Gregorian monk chant and encapsulating us all. It was moments like these that reminded the audience that As You Like It is about escaping from the restraints of the court, which to me was a metaphor for reality, and being liberated in a place where imagination (and silliness) reigns, which to me is what theatre is all about.
The only slightly problematic element to this production, I felt, was Lucy Phelps’ performance as the heroine Rosalind. Casting Lucy Phelps meant that Rosalind, and her male counterpart Ganymede, had an androgynous aesthetic. Though I do believe that this is a positive choice in a play that messes with gender, I also think that it can be a dangerous one. The actress had short blonde hair, which was slicked back as Rosalind becomes Ganymede and other elements allowed Phelps convincingly look both male and female. The problem was how Lucy Phelps embodied the two. By having an androgynous actress, there is not much physical difference between Rosalind and Ganymede, so the acting itself becomes evermore important. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Phelps’ had to act overly masculine when she was on stage as Ganymede. What Phelps lacked in was portraying subtle differences in things such as mannerisms and tone of voice, which meant I found it hard to believe that Orlando, or even Rosalind’s father, fell for the facade that was Ganymede. (Some other students felt this worked, however, and we had lively discussions about our different responses.)
Despite my one small reservation, the RSC’s production of As You Like breaks away from traditional and restrictive theatre to bring forward a refreshing, light-hearted comedy that does not take itself seriously.
As You Like It, Sykes, Kimberley (dir.). Royal Shakespeare Company, April 8th 2019, Royal Shakespeare Theatre.