Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Many of William Shakespeare’s plays place great expectations on the head of the lead actor. A dull Macbeth might just be saved by a superb Lady Macbeth; a sub-par Hamlet will not save an otherwise magnificent production. So too with one of the lesser-known (and often underappreciated) plays, As You Like It, which gives us Shakespeare’s most prominent female character. A charmless Rosalind would mar any staging of the play beyond recovery. And As You Like It also depends on exquisite chemistry between the main players. Thankfully, the Michael Zwiauer-directed production for the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company is triumphant on both these accounts.
Amidst elegant minimalist scenery, we are taken from the dangerous world of Duke Frederick’s court to the timeless Forest of Arden, wherein farce and love games ensue. We witness Rosalind’s cross-dressing disguise as Ganymede and teasing of her unaware love, Orlando, as well as the fool Touchstone’s wooing of the peasant girl Audrey, the redemption of Orlando’s scheming brother Oliver, and the love-at-first-sight between him and Rosalind’s cousin and friend Celia. There is also the farcical love triangle between Phoebe, Silvius, and Ganymede/Rosalind.
Each character, including the ones not mentioned above, is superbly portrayed- casting must have been a thankfully easy process! But, as I said, Rosalind is the main player here, and it is to Tilly Botsford that most of the praise must go. She brings charm, awkwardness, and confidence to the role, perfectly portraying Rosalind as a mixture of witty, knowing rogue and smitten lover. Michael Billington once remarked that “the crucial test of any Rosalind” is whether one really believes she is helplessly in love with Orlando. An awkward wooer, a tortured lover, and a saucy teaser; Botsford’s Rosalind passes this test.
Praise should also go to Lizzie Lewis (Celia) and Jacob Baird (Orlando) who play the role of annoyed friend and dumb lover well. Will Peppercorn’s Touchstone is the most well-realised of the other characters- he plays Shakespeare’s first wise fool with melodramatic sincerity and hilarious vivacity, a combination of Doctor Who and the leery fellow in every local pub. Fergus Head’s portrayal of Duke Senior as a well-meaning doddery old man is inspired. Michael Hajiantonis’s Jaques is an excellent melancholic party-pooper whose rendition of the “All the world’s a stage” speech is nicely done, with deftly humorous acting of the “seven ages” of man.
As You Like It contains a few songs and these are beautifully sung and played by the musical team- I heard more than one audience member complimenting their skill. The minimalist scenery is elegant and through some simple tweaks and changes in lighting is effective at intimating the essential, transformative move to Arden from the court. There are some nice directorial choices too- I was hoping the play would be relatively intact, as too many previous productions have cut scenes to reduce time, but Zwiauer wisely keeps them all in.
Another test of any production of this play is- is it funny? This staging passes that test too, and magnificently so- the laughter was ringing from the walls. Meanwhile, the only nit-picking criticism I can make is the portrayal of Orlando’s servant Adam. Not because of the actor, Domi Ucar, who was excellent, but because she was too obviously young rather than old; I believe there was a line wherein she mentioned her old age, but without makeup like Duke Senior this didn’t come across.
This was a shame because, after Jaques’s “All the world’s a stage” speech, Orlando is meant to be carrying an exhausted, nearly-dying Adam into the camp to get him food and rest. And this is meant to be a concrete counterpoint to Jaques’s cynical view of human nature and life; a refutation by way of showing selfless, noble love between representatives of two of the “seven ages.” Instead, Adam walks in without need of support, and at no point did she really seem to be dying. Perhaps it’s sentimental, but I’d like to have seen that scene done in that way.
But that is about all I can criticise- and even that is a small thing, and not even one, I would like to reiterate, that criticises Domi Ucar’s skilled portrayal of Orlando’s put-upon servant.
In short, this production of As You Like It was fantastic. Funny, charming, even moving, each and every single member of the cast and crew should be thoroughly proud of themselves. All the world’s a stage indeed, and this was a piece of joyous foolery in the forest.