My first experience with As You Like It was in college at Denison University, freshman year, 1996. We read the play, discussed it, watched the BBC version from the 1970s with Helen Mirren…and that was it. It didn’t leave an indelible mark on me the way other Shakespeare plays did (except for two lines that have always remained with me: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” and the excellent insult, “Sell while you can: you are not for all markets.”). I was exposed to Measure for Measure at the same time, and that one became a quick favorite that I would read several times in the ensuing decades and see performed in a variety of productions. Somehow the hijinks in the Forest of Arden didn’t touch me in the same way.
A year or so later the Denison Singers performed a setting of Shakespeare’s songs by a Welsh composer whose name escapes me, but the work included “Under the Greenwood Tree” and “It was a Lover and his Lass” from AYLI. These stuck. I’ve been singing them in my head periodically ever since, and, in fact, I attempted to keep a Shakespeare blog called “Under the Greenwood Tree” once upon a time. In any case, despite loving these two songs, I never returned to Arden myself until a few months ago when I learned it would be one of the plays we’d be studying here.
Before I actually reread the play, I read a few essays from Harold Bloom’s very large Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. They weren’t even about AYLI, but in everything I read he found an excuse to talk about Hamlet, Falstaff and Rosalind (AYLI’s heroine) again and again, and in the most unlikely of places (The Bastard in King John, for example, is an early sketch of a character that approaches the complexity of a Hamlet, a Falstaff, or a Rosalind…). I knew that Rosalind was one of Shakespeare’s major female roles, but I certainly didn’t remember her as being so well-developed and complex.
The production here at the Globe, then, was a revelation. The plot is still the plot, and it is (endearingly) bizarre, but the staging and the acting made the show uproariously funny — and everyone in our programme agreed. The scenery, as is the custom here at the Globe, was minimal. Shakespeare gives the audience the scenery with his words, and unless you can do better than he does, you’re better not to try. The result is that there is very little stuff to get in the actors’ way, and the emptiness of the huge stage gives them the freedom to play. And they do! Touchstone, the cynical clown, had some moments of great physical slapstick that was complimented by his quick tongue. Our scene director, Pieter Lawman, pointed out that Touchstone is a difficult role to play because much of what he says isn’t very funny on the surface of it. Finding his humor is a real challenge, but Daniel Crossley spit out his words with a venom and speed accompanied by apt gesticulation: we were in stitches!
As for Rosalind, all I can say is that I’m now a lifelong fan of Michelle Terry and I will go to see her in anything she does for the rest of her career. It was magical. In her first scene we see her banter with Celia (Ellie Piercy, equally excellent, but whose character plays the straight-man, somewhat, to Rosalind’s unbound trickster). She’s girlish — and churlish — and then, as her uncle, Celia’s father, banishes her from the land she is so utterly and convincingly strong and independent. If you were to take Terry’s Rosalind to a karaoke bar, she could sing “I am Woman (Hear Me Roar)” and follow it up immediately with a flirtatious rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” and the combination would not have seemed ironic. She was powerful and playful, and, of course, this depiction is not contrived, it’s exactly how Shakespeare wrote her to be. But somehow I missed it in the reading.
I don’t know how many more times this production of AYLI will be performed, but I don’t think it’s very many as the season is wrapping up on September 5th. But if you read this in time, and if you are able, you must (MUST!) see it!
(And if you can’t make it….well, mayhaps you can come see me take my turn as Rosalind on the Globe stage on July 24th. Michelle Terry needs some competition. Just sayin’…)