As You Like It (Queensland Theatre) – theatre review

William Shakespeare’s light-hearted comedy As You Like It is one of the playwright’s most regarded pastoral plays. Before we get to the simple forest life of Queensland Theatre’s lively production, however, we are first opened to its treacherous duchy court, for all the world is, of course, a stage.

The story is of Rosalind (Emma Wright), the only daughter of a banished senator, who is similarly sent into the forest by a Duchess (Helen Cassidy) because of her friendship with the Duchess’s daughter Celia (Courtney Cavallaro). Rosalind does this disguised as a boy, fleeing court to the forest home of other exiled fugitives, including the chivalrous Orlando (Andrew Hearle), to eventually find a way to bring all the plot’s love stories to realisation by the play’s end.

Adapting a Shakespearean play that has been performed so many times to still bring something new and interesting is no easy task and acclaimed Shakespearean director Damien Ryan’s attention to detail ensures that this As You Like It is one of engaging rural revelry in its focus of the romance between Orlando and Rosalind and their obstacle-ridden road to happiness. Motifs of other comedies abound as the story twists and turns its way through complications of love, lust and mistaken identity through masquerade. Indeed, Ryan finds the text’s accessibility through its comedy, embracing the farce and using pop culture nods sparingly and thus to good effect.

Although fast paced in its story, it’s a long show in its realisation, with a three hour running time befitting its enormity in terms of plot and characters. It’s a complicated and thus challenging text to follow in its need for doubling and tripling of roles, and while there is a knowing lean into this in the final joyful celebration of its four marriages, the change of actors across roles is initially confusing in some scenes.

This, along with the density of such a lengthy, makes the work of all performers especially strong. Wright’s Rosalind represents a refined balance between humour and heart that immediately warms her character to the audience, and her natural chemistry with Hearle’s Orlando enhances our investment in her story as she transforms from girlish nativity to a womanly strength that allows her to transform the lives of others, as well as herself. The banter between Roslind and her best friend, cousin Celia is another highlight, in its tenderness as much as its back and forth tease. After literally throwing herself into her initial portrayal of the prudent sidekick of sorts, Cavallaro easily embodies the strong-willed and easily-offended shepherdess Phebe, feistily rejecting young shepherd Silvus (Davis Dingle), even though he is passionately in love with her.

It is appropriate that for a play that arguably challenges patriarchal values by disrupting the stereotypical differences between masculine and feminine, that casting is gender blind. Cassidy’s Duchess (rather than the usual Duke Frederick), is regally assured, in stark contrast to her later doubling as dull-witted goat-girl Audrey who falls in love with cynical court jester Touchstone. Even with Audrey’s more ocker vocal sounds, Shakespeare’s words are always crisp in her mouth, which helps the audience in attempt to follow along with events. Similarly, this production’s female fool, still holds the audience in her comic hands. As the clever and witty Touchstone, Hannah Raven takes us back to the bawdy groundling interactions of The Globe days with an engaging performance of never-waning energy and perfect comic timing.

The standout moments, however, come from Andrew Buchanan as the melancholic, contemplative Jacques, an exiled former nobleman now living in the forest. His delivery of the play’s iconic ‘All the world’s a stage’ monologue respectfully guides us through the seven stage of man both physically and verbally so that it resonates despite the tyranny of time from when it was first penned. It is a magical moment of captivated audience absorption that results in an opening night outburst of some applause as he entertains his camp mates with explanation of his philosophy on the proverbial threescore years and ten of an average human life.

Some spectacular moments also come courtesy of the show’s many creatives. Emma White’s set and costume design capture the contrasts of the court and forest settings in emphasis also of the story’s conflicts between culture and nature, and duty and love, with the sharp carnival stripe attire of the Duchess and her court jester being transitioned to the country attire of foresters. David Murray’s lighting design, meanwhile, warms us to the trials and tribulations of exiled life in the sparser experience of the desert Forest of Arden.

Music plays an integral role in this As You Like It, which adds an extra, though interwoven, layer to the production. Original music, composed by Music Director Alec Steedman and performed on stage by the cast and musicians, adds a medieval texture and captures the spirit of the comedy in folly-filled numbers such as that which stirs us into interval. While harmonised ensemble numbers such as this work well, however, at times it is difficult to hear individual singers over the music’s sounds.

There is also a compelling visual aesthetic, especially as the painted tapestry scrim screen backdrop to the Royal Court scenes is dropped to dramatically reveal the spectacular staging of the forest, complete with curved gradient drop from backdrop to stage proper. This allows for some memorable imagery, such as Colin Smith’s perch upon a rock from which to establish the pastoral mode of the play as opposed to the painted pomp of the court, as Duke Senior, the kind and fair-minded rightful ruler of the dukedom.

The play operates on many levels, not just literally, but also figuratively, which is reflected in the detailed staging touches of Orlando’s poetic words of praise for Rosalind, which are hung from the trees of the forest where Rosalind and Celia find them. This not only fulfills narrative purposes, but allows for emphasis on the elaborate use of language through allusion and wordplay that help its storytelling resonate across time and space.

Queensland Theatre’s As You Like It embraces the spirit of Shakespeare’s play and is, therefore, particularly appropriately timed to have its opening week coincide with World Shakespeare Day. While its journey might be a lengthy one in which some of the narrative’s intricacies remain obscure, its take is as fresh as ever in its exploration of liberty and love of the pastoral type. The result is a boisterously funny spectacle of all that Shakespeare can be once access in to his work is fostered.

As You Like It is playing at Queensland Theatre’s Bille Brown Theatre, West End (Brisbane) until 13 May 2023

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane

Other reviews you might enjoy: