I’m writing this from a cosy cabin retreat just outside Walpole, about six hours’ drive south-west of Perth. I’ve escaped here with my darling wife for a few days R&R after the end of a rewarding but exhausting season of my show Wish at the Studio Underground.
Nestled in the heart of the giant forests, we’re surrounded by towering karri, marri and tingle trees, with the dramatic windswept beachscapes of the Great Southern (and a few handy wineries) not far away. It’s the perfect place to contemplate what Shakespeare was up to with As You Like It, his extended essay on the pleasures and perils of pastoral – a genre that fascinated the Elizabethans at least since Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (and to which Shakespeare strategically returned in Act 4 of The Winter’s Tale). In essence, it’s a form of narrative that revisits (at least in the imagination) a simple life of harmony with nature. We’re still entranced by the genre. Sea Change, anyone?
Why do Shakespeare at all today? It’s worth asking the question occasionally – and attempting an answer beyond unthinking knee-jerk responses like: ‘because because he’s the greatest writer/playwright in the English language.’ If nothing else, it might help to focus the minds of companies and directors whenever they choose to program one of his plays. After all the negative experiences most people had when they were force-fed Shakespeare at school, why should they be expected to turn up in droves now and spend two or three hours in the theatre struggling to enjoy themselves?
Four answers come to mind, in no particular order: great stories, great characters, great language and great theatre. The first two are matters of content, and can be transposed to the screen (Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran being two of the greatest examples) or some other medium (Verdi’s Otello, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet) without requiring Shakespeare’s poetry or stagecraft as their form of expression.
For this very reason, however, it’s the last two (the words and the stagecraft) that clinch things, for better or worse, when it comes to seeing and doing Shakespeare in the theatre. Indeed, the poetry of ‘the Bard’ as a vehicle for thought and feeling is justly celebrated, especially in the famous speeches; but his use of dialogue (iambic or prose) as a vehicle for action is no less ground-breaking and remains unparalleled – even if both (poetry and dialogue) are often the greatest stumbling-blocks for a modern audience.
This leads me to the most underrated of Shakespeare’s gifts: his dramaturgy – using the word not its limited contemporary professional sense but with the expanded force it had when Lessing coined it, drawing on the original Greek meaning of ‘making theatre’. In this regard, Shakespeare’s sense of form is often disparaged as messy or crude in comparison, for example, with the terse structures of Greek or French Classical tragedy, or even the comedies of Moliere.
This is like saying that Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Dickens had less sense of form than Flaubert or Jane Austen. Like the great Russian novelists, Shakespeare in his own medium embraced the world in all its variegated glory, absurdity and misery, and in all its ever-changing moods. That’s what still makes him ‘our contemporary’, to borrow from Jan Kott’s indispensible collection of political-existential interpretations of the histories and tragedies.
Perhaps it’s a little harder at first glance to see the contemporaneity of the comedies. That’s because they refer so heavily and so knowingly to the stage-conditions and conventions of the time. The ‘comedies of gender’ in particular (As You Like It, Twelfth Night and in a different vein The Taming of The Shrew) are intricately bound up with the fact that their female characters were written to be played by boys in drag (as one could also say of that great ‘tragedy of gender’, Macbeth).
In the case of As You Like It, the device and theme of masquerade is intricately woven into a broader thematic chain of art, artifice and artificiality as these relate to love, nature, politics, culture and society. ‘The truest poetry is the most feigning,’ as the urbane clown Touchstone says to the naïve shepherdess and object of his desire Audrey – a crude piece of sophistry that is also the deeply serious motto of the play. The game of identity (personal, sexual and gender) that gets played out at the beating heart of this play – above all in the crucial scenes between Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando – is thus no less subversive, profound and moving (as well as comical) than in that other great pantomime of the passions, Mozart and Da Ponte’s Così fan Tutte.
The key to its success in my view is that the pantomime must be played straight. The knowingness of the form must in no way be acknowledged by the actors – with the sole exception of Jacques, whose ‘melancholy’ consists precisely in his ironic consciousness that artifice permeates (and in his eyes corrupts) everything, including the forest, the court, the ‘foul body of the infected world’ and the famously seven-aged ‘acts’ of man.
In drag or out of it, all the other performances (including Touchstone) must be utterly truthful and sincere. This absolute requirement of integrity also extends to all other aspects of the staging and interpretation (including set, props, costumes and music), none of which must ‘comment’ on the action, ironically or otherwise, but simply and wholly be part of it – from Amiens’ songs, to the choreography of the wrestling match, to the use of wigs and disguises, and even the representation of the forest itself.
This last, it should go without saying, is not a ‘literal’ forest (for example ‘Arden’ or ‘the Ardennes’, depending on which camp of literalists you follow) but a ‘littoral’ one, in the sense that it lies on the border or threshold between reality and dreams, waking and sleeping, life and death – or (in short) in the make-believe world of the theatre, where people (in this case, actors and characters equally) dress up and pretend, in order to abandon their official, social, familiar selves, and discover new and perhaps more true ones, hitherto unknown even to them.
These dimensions of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy – its theatrical and social sophistication, its psychological and spiritual truth – are largely absent from Roger Hodgman’s new production of As You Like It for Black Swan State Theatre Company. On the contrary, we’re given a literal forest (better nothing but bare boards, surely, unless something genuinely imaginative offers itself to counterpoint rather than illustrating the words); pantomime ‘contemporary’ staging (including smartphones, ipods, beat-boxes and other ‘devices’); and performances that continually inform us that ‘we know better’ than the play itself.
The question immediately asserts itself, then: why bother to stage it? To affirm its status as a cultural-historical relic? To demonstrate our own superiority? Or indeed, the irrelevance of Shakespeare – and perhaps theatre as a whole? Fundamentally, faith in the play and the form itself seem lacking – and alongside it, faith in the audience, and even the actors. The latter do a sterling job – or rather, make the best of a bad one.
Steve Turner’s Jacques stands out from the crowd like a good deed in a naughty world, ironically the only performance that doesn’t comment on itself – but the dramatic function of the character in the delicate structure of the play is completely missed in this deeply cynical production. Geoff Kelso does yeoman service in the double-role of the two Dukes; Luke Hewitt is likewise solid and delivers reliable punch-lines as Touchstone; Caitlin Beresford-Ord is an appropriately earthy and unselfconscious Audrey; Greg McNeil makes a wry, grounded Corin in the weary guise of Aussie stockman; Nick Maclaine and Cecelia Peters as Silvius and Phoebe bring ample energy and zest to their roles as the young deluded bogan swains; and James Sweeny, Jovana Miletic and Grace Smilbert bring all the considerable charm and verve they have to the central roles of Orlando, Rosalind and her cousin Celia (for me the most effective performance of the night).
However for me the key scenes of courting ran aground despite all their best efforts: the comedy and pathos felt strained in this parody of a game that turns (or should turn) into a reality, in which a young man pretends to woo a boy playing a girl playing a boy (and falls deeply in love with him/her/him). The ensuing embarrassment – which should amount to a vertiginous loss of self – was ‘acted’ (i.e. demonstrated) but not felt or experienced: they (and we) ‘got off’ (in both senses) far too lightly.
The audience, of course, laughed on cue and loved every minute of it. I felt depressed; in fact, I felt like Jacques. Perhaps this says as much about me as it does about the audience or the production; perhaps I, too, am made ‘for other than for dancing measures’. Or perhaps it’s time to give Shakespeare, theatre, actors and audiences alike the benefit of the doubt – and just do it, without apology, within sign-posting, and without contemporary cultural cringing. My bet is that we’d love it, laugh all the harder, and perhaps learn something too – about the play, the art form, and (most importantly) ourselves.