Meditating on As You Like It

Bell Shakespeare at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse.

(Full disclosure: I wrote the teachers’ resource kit for this show, and I very much hope to be hired by this company again.)

I think I have finally pinpointed what is necessary to enjoy As You Like It. I never fancied this play much. I found the set-piece speeches over-long and archaic, and the same for most of the jokes. I found the structure to be all out of whack, given the audience is showing up to see Orlando and Rosalind trade witticisms. When people describe the plot they say it’s about Orlando wooing Rosalind, who he thinks is a youth called Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind to ‘cure’ him of his lovesickness. In fact, this only occupies one scene, and even for that you have to wait until act four. I always found it less entertaining than frustrating, but now I believe the trick is in the mental attitude you bring to the experience of watching it.

You absolutely cannot watch this play for what happens next, you must allow yourself to pause completely in what is happening now.

This is both in the spirit of Pastoral, and a bigger lesson in the attitude one needs to bring to plays of this period. This is something I have been telling students for ages, without really absorbing the full extent of it myself. We are so soaked in film culture these days we have come to judge by film’s standards storytelling experiences entirely inappropriate to that measure. When editing a screenplay, unless a line or action moves a film along to what comes next, it’s gone. Shakespeare is happy to have a speech take up any amount of time it needs, as long as it gives a full and vivid picture of a thought the character is having at the time.

Screenwriters are taught to ask themselves, above all else, “does it advance the plot?” Shakespeare and his contemporaries asked only “does it enrich the moment?”

As You Like It is a series of rich moments. To look for where a speech is taking the story is to kill it. It is something akin to that other thing our culture finds so difficult, meditation. Which at one level is being wholly in each passing moment, and not allowing the mind to stray onto what went before or what comes next. So if Jaques wants to tell you about the seven ages of man, or Touchstone wants to tell you the seven causes of a quarrel, you need to school yourself to really hear all seven, one by one, rather than marking the time by wondering why it can’t be two, and whether Celia is going to get to say anything else.

Artificial silk flowers strung on long ropes.

Peter Evans’ As You Like It helped this process along with a charming set composed only of ropes and flowers, immediately requiring you to absent yourself from the real world. A Touchstone with genuine standup/vaudeville skills was also an asset. In comedy we wait not for the next plot point, but only for the punchline, therefore it becomes a more immediate form, more conducive to keeping the audience in the passing moment. Touchstone and Audrey had the most attractive romantic chemistry in this version, which runs directly counter to the text; but this harms no one, and it bolsters the overall atmosphere of charm. In fact, this production was noticeable for how very beautiful all its four women were. Zahra Newman is an obvious casting choice in the showpiece role of Rosalind, with her immediately apparent intelligence and grace. She paced her growth into the assumed part of Ganymede effectively, not leaping into it, but gradually warming up to the realisation of all the things the persona allowed her to do.

In this production the Act I set was deliberately bland to the point of absence, to facilitate the impact of the dropping down of the garlands. This, coupled with the lovely time everyone seemed to be having in the forest of Arden, left a strong impression at the conclusion that there would be a collective decision to take the forest back with everyone to the Court, rather than leave the clearly preferable pastoral world behind.

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