AS YOU LIKE IT
AS YOU LIKE IT, Bell Shakespeare Company at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, 25 February-21 March 2015, then touring to Canberra and Melbourne. Photography by Rush: above - Tony Taylor, Gareth Davies, Zahra Newman; right: John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti, Zahra Newman.
Rosalind is one of the great and most fun roles for a female in Shakespeare – substantial, central, full of comedy – and also a demonstration of the attraction of androgyny to men and women alike. In Shakespeare’s day she was played by a boy, dressed as a girl, pretending to be a young man, with all manner of frissons going on under the ruffles. And in this 21st century production, directed by Peter Evans, one is led to expect at least a whiff of sexual ambiguity: the poster and program cover imagery suggest it with Zahra Newman in a tux, black bow tie, slicked-back pompadour, sexy smirk and pencil moustache. But no.
Yet when it comes to the characterisation, this is a Rosalind for a Hillsong audience or maybe a Warringah Liberal Ladies coach party. Everything about her screams reassurance. “It’s okay! She’s female, don’t worry, no hanky panky transy stuff here, she’s a girl. We’re only [rabbits’ ears] pretending.” And so, aside from a change of frock to a pair of pants and a jacket, there is no perceptible difference between Rosalind at usurper Duke Senior’s (Alan Dukes) court and Rosalind on the run with her cousin and best friend Celia (Kelly Paterniti). And towards the end it’s underlined even more starkly when Rosalind lets down and shakes out her hair so that her lover Orlando (Charlie Garber who can cope with most things) can be in no danger of thinking he might be in love with – gasp – a chap.
So what’s the point? The thing is, although Shakespeare’s light-hearted comedy of hidden and mistaken identity is a confection, there is a core of seriousness that needs to be there for it to work. And that core is the truth of two young women alone in the world and exiled to the forest of Arden. They will not survive long unless Rosalind can pass as a bloke and protect herself and “sister” Celia from prowling would-be rapists and murderers otherwise known as “men”.
The potential power of the role of Rosalind, and the underlying and inherent sexiness of it, is the sexual ambiguity and potential for transgression. Of a beautiful young woman transforming herself into a beautiful young man who thus confuses and confounds polite society (including the audience) by awakening unusual responses of oppositional attraction. The most striking example in living memory was the 1.88m Pamela Rabe in tight denims, black leather biker jacket and bleached blonde flat top. She was both beautiful and crazily menacing – Billy Idol out of James Dean – and there were often queues outside the MTC stage door of confused and palpitating Melbourne matrons and their daughters, all hoping to touch the sleeve of the forbidden. That’s how and why you do Rosalind.
So...through no fault of her own an otherwise excellent Zahra Newman is hobbled from the beginning but is an appealing and intelligent presence nevertheless. She and Paterniti – got up like Swinging 60s chicks (costumes Kate Aubrey-Dunn) leave Celia’s dad’s palazzo for the unlikely yet pretty floral-decorated, liana-hung wilds of Arden (design Michael Hankin, lighting Paul Jackson). The girls swap political persecution for the life of wandering travellers and along the way they meet the melancholy Jacques (John Bell) and, of course, Orlando (Garber) who’s had his own troubles with elder brother Oliver (Dorje Swallow).
Happily, however, the play opens with the return to the stage after who knows how long of one of our finest clowns, Tony Taylor. As the catatonically dutiful manservant Adam, his stately progression around the stage in the opening minutes is a delight and everything he does is a masterclass in less-is-more. Similarly, John Bell’s world-weary delivery of “All the world’s a stage...” is of a speech new written. The younger members of the company acquit themselves well, particularly the irrepressibly intelligent Charlie Garber; Abie Tucker and Emily Eskell (Phoebe and Audrey) too and Gareth Davies as the fool, Touchstone. But the dullness at the play’s heart, where there should be pulsatingly dangerous sparkle, is perhaps not something easily fixed in this outing.