In an interview in The Independent newspaper Maria Aberg, director of this season’s As You Like It at the RSC, acknowledged the play’s reputation as ‘lightweight and insubstantial’ and I must admit it’s one I struggle with. On paper it’s got everything; comedy, love interest and drama but all too often the comedy misfires, the love stories meander and the drama feels contrived. I adored Aberg’s production of King John last year so I went in with high hopes; if anyone was going to show me why this is a good play then Maria Aberg with most of her King John team, including the leads, Pippa Nixon as Rosalind and Alex Waldmann as Orlando, would.
As You Like It is playing in rep with Hamlet and they have similar platform-over-soil designs, here the central staging is lifted out to create a wresting pit for Charles and Orlando while in Hamlet the middle section stays in and they remove the rest. Wooden columns suggest pillars in Duke Frederick’s court and then revolve to become trees in the Forest of Arden. While the set is in motion it creates a transitional space in which the exiled Duke makes brief eye contact with his brother and with Rosalind as one world forms and the other dissolves.
Forests in Shakespeare can be magical spaces peopled by fairies but here the forest is real, populated by working farmers with mud on their boots; it’s the court that unreal. The central premise for Aberg’s production is not that Rosalind performs the role of a boy in the forest, it’s that she is freed from having to perform the role of a woman in Duke Frederick’s court. As Aberg says in the online arts magazine, Exeunt, ‘the reason for [Rosalind’s] freedom and transformation in Arden is less to do with the fact that she plays a man and much more to do with the fact that she doesn’t have to play a woman any more’.
The court lacks the specificity of the forest; it’s a generic not-Arden, formal and monochrome, where the men wear suits and the women are in high heels, floor-length evening gowns and plunging necklines, their movement restricted and their bodies sexualised, the artificiality emphasised by a looping, repetitive, techno hand jive dance. This is an unnatural place where relationships are fractured and strained, with jealous brothers and a resentful father and uncle from which the Arden refugees are glad to escape.
The programme notes reference Judith Butler on performative gender and the idea that ‘women may elect to specifically reject [their gender role]… or to perform it on their own terms’. Rosalind and Celia both create new gendered identities; Celia’s Aliena wears a pretty floral print dress and sensible boots and Pippa Nixon’s first appearance as Ganymede is convincingly masculine, with strapped down breasts and a schoolboy haircut.
Her genuinely boyish appearance foregrounds Orlando’s and Ganymede’s homoerotic courtship. This would have been explicit to an Elizabethan audience watching an under-age boy dressed as an adult woman pretending to be an under-age boy playing a love scene with an adult man but while the Elizabethans watched something conventionally heterosexual in the world of the play, a straight Orlando courting a straight Rosalind, and subversively homosexual in real life here the action flirts with a fictional homosexuality, Ganymede gives Orlando an erection, but played out by a conventionally straight male/female pair of actors.
Judith Butler distinguishes between performance and performative; in a performance I’m still the real me underneath, I’m just playing a role, but a truly Butlerian Ganymede is not a woman pretending to be a boy, he becomes a boy, so Alex Waldmann’s exaggerated ‘I’m really straight you know’ reaction to Orlando’s arousal felt like a heteronormative cop-out to steer the audience safely back from something more authentically transgressive. And while the play ends with a resounding affirmation of heterosexuality as Hymen marries off four couples at once I found Celia’s Act I, scene iii speech to Rosalind, ‘thou and I am one’ stood out as the simplest and most sincere expression of true love in the whole play.
The ensemble playing is strong throughout and the forest cameos are delightful, especially Phoebe, William and Silvius. I found Jaques more wacky than melancholy and Touchstone remained unchanged by the transition from court to forest which seemed odd; if women are free to choose their own identity in the forest, can’t a man, visibly adopting a performed identity at court with a red nose and whiteface make-up, do it too?
But the play hangs on whether or not you fall in love with Rosalind and are charmed by the Orlando and Rosalind story and for me the answer to both was a resounding yes.