Nice Day For White Wellies

I’ll end my series of Stratford Shakespeare Festival reviews for this year with the show that opened the Festival: As You Like It.

As You Like It has always been a funny one for me. I’ve always felt like it was a collection of great bits rather than a great play – Jaques’ “seven ages of man” speech, Touchstone’s discourse on the virtues of “if,” Rosalind’s declaration that “men have died, from time to time, and the worms have eaten them – but not for love.” But I was always bothered by the huge setup – the whole business with the court and Duke Frederick’s paranoia and so on- that just melts away in Act Five with only the most cursory explanation (from a character we’ve never even met before – the otherwise superfluous middle brother of the de Boys clan). And I never entirely “got” the central plot of the play: the courtship of Rosalind by Orlando, under Rosalind’s tutelage. It always seemed to me that Orlando was ludicrously overmatched, intellectually at least, and that therefore what we were watching was simply Rosalind showing off.

I don’t whether I can entirely credit this production, but this year, for the first time, I got it: the Rosalind-Orlando romance, the structure of the play, the whole thing.

Let me quote a couple of bits of banter between Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) and Orlando.

ROSALIND But come, now
I will be your Rosalind in a more coming-on
disposition, and ask me what you will. I will grant

Then love me, Rosalind.

Yes, faith, will I, Fridays and Saturdays and all.

And wilt thou have me?

Ay, and twenty such.

What sayest thou?

Are you not good?

I hope so.

Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?

And here’s the second bit:

Now tell me how long you would have her after you
have possessed her.

For ever and a day.

Say ‘a day,’ without the ‘ever.’ No, no, Orlando;
men are April when they woo, December when they wed:
maids are May when they are maids, but the sky
changes when they are wives. I will be more jealous
of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen,
more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more
new-fangled than an ape, more giddy in my desires
than a monkey: I will weep for nothing, like Diana
in the fountain, and I will do that when you are
disposed to be merry; I will laugh like a hyen, and
that when thou art inclined to sleep.

But will my Rosalind do so?

By my life, she will do as I do.

O, but she is wise.

Or else she could not have the wit to do this: the
wiser, the waywarder: make the doors upon a woman’s
wit and it will out at the casement; shut that and
‘twill out at the key-hole; stop that, ‘twill fly
with the smoke out at the chimney.

A man that had a wife with such a wit, he might say
‘Wit, whither wilt?’

Nay, you might keep that cheque for it till you met
your wife’s wit going to your neighbour’s bed.

And what wit could wit have to excuse that?

Marry, to say she came to seek you there. You shall
never take her without her answer, unless you take
her without her tongue. O, that woman that cannot
make her fault her husband’s occasion, let her
never nurse her child herself, for she will breed
it like a fool!

Orlando then protests he must go attend on the Duke, Rosalind protests his leaving, he goes, and Celia chastises her: “You have simply misused our sex in your love-prate: we must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head, and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest.”

Well, she has, hasn’t she? And why? In the dialogues themselves, Rosalind presents herself (in disguise as Ganymede) as a tutor: someone who’ll teach Orlando how to woo his Rosalind properly. But Orlando gets precious little opportunity to do any wooing – Rosalind is constantly cutting in with her own quips. Moreover, this dialogue doesn’t sound at all like teaching Orlando how to woo – rather, it’s a series of warnings of what Rosalind is actually going to be like if he wins her.

So perhaps Rosalind is following her initial self-described mission, to “cure” Orlando of his love. This is what she says she’ll do when she first meets him in disguise as Ganymede. Since Rosalind is deeply in love herself, and doesn’t actually want to lose Orlando, that’s presumably not her real mission. So it’s a test, then: if she can “cure” Orlando of his love for her, then he’s not worthy of her, but if she can’t then his love is true, and he passes. Right?

But what’s the test? When Macduff comes to England to seek Malcolm, to woo him back up north to fight for the throne of Scotland, Malcolm tries to put him off with similar disclaimers of his unworthiness. He’ll be a worse tyrant than Macbeth ever was. And for a while Macduff perseveres in his efforts to persuade, but finally the litany of Malcolm’s monstrosities grows to long, and Macduff gives up, crying woe for Scotland. At which point Malcolm reveals that it’s all been a test – he wanted to make sure Macduff wasn’t actually Macbeth’s agent, trying to lure Malcolm back to Scotland to be killed. By giving up his suit, Macduff proved that he truly loved Scotland, and now Malcolm can trust him.

Rosalind seems to be playing a somewhat analogous game here, testing Orlando by saying all these terrible things about herself – specifically, that she’ll be unfaithful to him. This is a very peculiar love-test, though, isn’t it? The usual love-test in Shakespeare involves a ring given to be worn as a token; if the lover is true, he’ll never part with it. The woman then goes in disguise and tries to get the ring back; if she gets it, she knows her lover has been false. Of course, she invariably gets the ring back – the men are never true – but she winds up taking him back anyway. In other words, the usual love-test is a test of the (male) lover’s fidelity. Rosalind’s version of this is to demand that Orlando arrive with precise punctuality for his interviews; the heart of her dialogue, though, is to test him (supposedly) by saying that she will be unfaithful to him. How would one pass this test? Is Orlando supposed to protest that Rosalind wouldn’t do such a thing? He does, but Rosalind says: oh, yes she will. Is he supposed to say, like Macduff, then woe Orlando, cursed to love a woman who can’t be true?

Based on the way the play actually proceeds, it appears that “passing” the test involves refusing to play the game any longer:

I can live no longer by thinking.

I will weary you then no longer with idle talking.

But, if that’s the case, for whose benefit is the game being played?

My sense of the dialogue is that this whole game isn’t for Orlando’s benefit at all: it’s for Rosalind’s. Yes, she’s incredibly smart and witty – but she’s also very young. Her father abandoned her (perforce) at a delicate moment in her emotional development; her uncle is no use as a guide; and her mother is, presumably, dead. She has no Prospero to arrange for a match to be marooned with her. She must teach herself. She meets Orlando, falls in love at first sight – and panics. Not just because he doesn’t know what to do either (he’s also completely untutored) but because she is terrified of the strength of her feelings, feelings she’s never had before. I mean, the next scene after meeting him she’s scandalizing her cousin by saying how she’s just met the father of her child.

In disguise as Ganymede, Rosalind can give voice to all the fears she has about herself, about the consequences of the incredible intensity of feeling she has. She never knew she could feel this kind of passion – what’s going to happen once she gets married? Will it last? If it doesn’t, won’t she go off looking for that feeling again, even if that takes her into her neighbor’s bed? All this business about a woman’s “wit” has a double meaning – “wit” means both intelligence and sexuality, and Rosalind herself has a sudden comprehension of the connection between the two, a sense that her intelligence, which she’s always been aware of, far from protecting her from her passion will inevitably find an outlet for it. For a time, that outlet – the frank talk while in disguise as a boy – does indeed provide protection, but it can’t last. Eventually her beloved will grow weary of the game, and demand a return to reality.

It must be that Rosalind is doing this for herself, because she has no practical reason to remain in disguise. Once she has reached the forest, all she has to do is go see her father and everything will be settled. She can trust him both to protect her and to be a good judge of Orlando’s character, and she already knows Orlando is his attendant. But she can’t trust him to protect her from herself. She needs this time in disguise, to say everything she’s feeling, just to get it out into the air. It barely matters what Orlando says in response, so long as he stays.

As I said, I’m not sure I can give full credit to this production for bringing me around to this conclusion; I was starting to muse in this vein before opening night. But at least some of the credit must go to the amazing team of Andrea Runge and Paul Nolan as Rosalind and Orlando. This is either my fifth or my sixth As You Like It and without question these two had the best chemistry of any pair of leads in these roles that I’ve yet seen. And, moreover, they were the best-matched in terms of emotional stature. I found Ms. Runge a bit shaky in the early court scenes, never becoming entirely convinced that she was in the peril the play was saying she was in, but as soon as she put on Ganymede’s suit she was transformed utterly. What was most winning about her Rosalind was the sense the sense of youth and vulnerability that she projected. Too often I’ve seen Rosalind portrayed as totally in command, tutoring Orlando and arranging matches and putting both Jaques and Touchstone in their places. But you could see this Rosalind in the process of improvisation, her wit a desperate whirl that she must keep spinning to keep herself from throwing herself at her Orlando with abandon. And Paul Nolan was a much stronger and more self-possessed Orlando than we usually get, a man who doesn’t know much how things are rightly done, but who knows his mind – who has a mind, and a keen one, even if he doesn’t have the wit to write good verse. And when he finally says he can live no longer by thinking, the scene plays beautifully: he has not graduated from Rosalind’s school; rather, he’s pushing Ganymede to graduate, and turn back into Rosalind. Which is exactly right.

Amazingly, though, these two do not stand out, this is a production with an exceptionally strong cast all around. Pride of mention must go to Ben Carlson and Lucy Peacock as Touchstone and Audrey. Carlson gives us a sour and glib Touchstone unimpressed by Rosalind or anybody . . . until he meets Audrey and, without ever planning it, actually falls in love. It’s remarkable – their romance is usually played entirely as a joke (as, indeed, Touchstone initially intends it), and I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen it taken at all seriously. And that works wonderfully. And we know the precise moment when his attitude changes for good – when, in the middle of “It Was A Lover And His Lass” (the best number in a show with excellent music all around, much of it composed by Justin Ellington) Ben Carlson grabs the bass away from the band on stage and just cuts loose. On opening night, this completely unexpected move brought the house down. It really was lovely to see a Touchstone with an actual character arc. And Audrey! The way Lucy Peacock wrings meaning out of a series of dumb looks is a marvel to behold. You actually understand what Touchstone might see in this dim-witted rustic. And she has her own bring-down the house moment at the final wedding scene. From her first appearance, Audrey wears wellington boots continually – she even manages to do the charleston in them. Well, in the final scene of the play all four nuptial couples arrive in wedding white, and there’s Audrey . . . wearing white wellies. Fantastic.

I’ve dwelt so long on Carlson and Peacock because I’ve never seen the Touchstone-Audrey story portrayed with such love. But amazingly, they don’t stand out either! Brent Carver makes an exceptional Jaques, less sardonic and bitter than wistful and nursing some deep wound. When he begs Duke Senior for a coat of motley and a fool’s license, we see how desperate his is to run from his proper state and station. If the classical melancholic is afflicted with a sense of his inevitable failure in the world, and the romantic melancholic with a sense of the world’s inevitable failure of him (and Hamlet partakes of both), then this Jaques, when he protests of a melancholy all his own, is avowing a melancholy of the classical type, the simples and objects that led him to it equally his own. It’s a deeply touching portrait, and Jaques decision to stay in the forest at the end of the play, and not return to civilization with the rest of the company not an expression of disgust at the “country copulatives” but a final melancholic admission of his own unworthiness, a recognition of himself in the figure of the penitent Duke Frederick whom in the end he seeks.

Tom Rooney plays both Dukes; Senior is the blandly genial exile that he inevitably is, but his Frederick rises above the unfortunate fascist trappings of the court; this Duke Frederick is, first and foremost, a failure as a father. His concern for Celia, and his inability to assuage that concern, forms the basis of his tyrannical paranoia. Mike Shara, as Oliver, Orlando’s hateful eldest brother, accomplishes the difficult task of being plausibly the same person before and after his conversion – it’s a minor role, but a vital one; we don’t see Duke Frederick’s own repentance, and so Oliver must carry the emotional weight of both transformations. Earlier, Shara’s Oliver is a man eaten up by resentment – sure both of his own superiority and of its universal misprision. After, it’s as if a great weight has been lifted from him, and his naturally winning qualities are finally allowed to shine on their own (and win Celia’s love at first sight). Brian Tree rounds out the de Boys household with a touching portrait of Old Adam (a role initiated, supposedly, by Shakespeare himself). I’m going on too long, but I can’t end without offering some praise to Ian Lake as the very sweet sylvan wooer Sylvius, and to Randy Hughson as the shepherd and natural philosopher, Corin.

I’ve gone on and on about the acting because, really, that’s what I go to the theatre for. But this is a show with a great deal of design as well. The overall concept is, in keeping with the setting in the 1920s to 1930s, and the many references to the arts in the script, to fill the stage with references to surrealism. Thus: the fascist court (very reminiscent of the court of the Fire Lord in Avatar: The Last Airbender) is guarded by uniformed men without faces – or with dog’s heads in place of those of men – and Magritte’s sky-irised eye watches in all directions like the eye of Sauron. In the woods, the Magritte theme continues; the forest lords feast on green apples (a larger green apple hovers overhead) and Jaques is dressed as the man in the bowler hat. As love blooms, Orlando’s head becomes a bouquet of flowers, and when Hymen enters to bless the wedding, he is attended by the lioness and the deer who figured so prominently in the story, predator and prey dancing together if not lying together. I thought all this worked surprisingly well, supporting the verse rather than distracting from it. The forest of Arden is a very Bruno Bettelheim-y place, so filling it with art self-consciously devoted to the exploration of the unconscious is singularly appropriate. And the music! As already noted, the show features lovely original music by Justin Ellington within a larger musical structure organized by Michael Roth, but the show is blessed as well with much of the cast of Jacques Brel to lead the singing, most particularly Mike Nadajewski and Jewelle Blackman.

I’m going against the critical consensus in praising the design, which many others found over-stuffed. And, indeed, it can be problematic. Supposedly there’s no clock in the forest – yet there one is, ticking away all through the production. And the forest floor is represented as a kaleidoscope of butterflies and other insects that, while beautiful, is very hard on the eyes, especially when viewed from the balcony seats. And I could find fault with some of the acting as well. Cara Ricketts still, to my mind, delivers her lines in too much of an iambic sing-song; Dalal Badr’s Phoebe was rather generic (then again, as Rosalind says, she’s not for all markets); and, as noted earlier, Andrea Runge herself only really comes into her own when she puts on her Ganymede disguise; her court scenes were far less emotionally convincing. But I rather like kaleidoscopes, and all the little details, all the ancillary stories that this production was stuffed with didn’t distract me; they charmed me. It’s a wonderfully entertaining, and deeply soulful production. And while the critics have heaped praised on the much sparer and more-focused Tempest, for me it was this show that turned me around on Des McAnuff as a director of Shakespeare. And I’m keenly interested indeed to see what he does with much of the same cast next year when he tackles Twelfth Night.