As You Like It (Het Nationale Toneel) @ Koninklijke Schouwburg, The Hague, Netherlands2014Comedy

  • Paul Franssen

As You Like It, directed by Theu Boermans, Het Nationale Toneel, Koninklijke Schouwburg, The Hague, 21 December 2014.

Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University).

Hannah Hoekstra as Ganymede, Reinout Scholten van Aschat as Orlando. Photo by Kurt Van der Elst.

Hannah Hoekstra as Ganymede, Reinout Scholten van Aschat as Orlando. Photo by Kurt Van der Elst.

This modern dress production gave a contemporary slant to the dominant themes of As You Like It. The contrast between the Court and the Forest of Arden was updated to that of City and Country, but also between establishment and environmentalist drop-outs. The multiple love story was not just about gender roles, but also about young people discovering their feelings, including their sexual preference.

The city, as usual, was a place of repression and aggression, which even the play’s positive characters did not escape from. Orlando came on carrying a pair of red boxing gloves, and before long he fought with his brother, forcing him to promise him his share of the inheritance by almost throttling him. Charles the wrestler had been replaced by kickboxer Charley the Machine, played by muscular Cas Winters, a genuine pro who looked unbeatable for Orlando. The latter was saved by foul play: when he was down, and Charley stood triumphing over him, he hit his opponent below the belt in the most painful spot, on Rosalind’s advice. When Duke Frederick wanted to put pressure on Oliver, he ordered Charley, who walked with two crutches after his fight, to shove one of these up Oliver’s behind. Even in the opening scene, Orlando came across as self-obsessed, complaining about his modest income to Old Adam, who looked extremely fragile and pitiful with his Zimmer frame. Adam’s assertion that his “age is as a lusty winter,/Frosty, but kindly” sounded ironic, and his offer of the little money he had put by for his old age was totally out of proportion to Orlando’s claim on his brother of 300.000 Euros.

The countryside was far more relaxed than the city, but not edenic. The old president (Duke Senior) and his company were reported to have returned to nature as environmentalist “tree-huggers.” Yet life in the country was hard, as suggested by the blizzard that welcomed Rosalind and Celia to their new home, and the exiles often longed back for the comforts of a warm house and plentiful food that they had left behind in “society,” as they called it. Ideals and realities were often at odds, as when some of the men had shot a deer. Jaques, an environmental fundamentalist, called them executioners, and took the deer’s carcase on his lap to mourn over it; but the hungry hunters retrieved their booty and ran off with it.

As usual, the contrasting settings were reflected in the stage pictures. The city scenes were framed by a nearly bare box of white walls and floor, while the computer-animated backdrop showed iron fences and a dark gray sky. In the girls’ private chambers, the lighting changed to pink, the background to a bedroom. But the set for the countryside was also white with snow when the exiles from the city got there. Whereas other productions often gradually bring in the warmer colour of spring, here that was only done in an ironic way: after the break, the setting changed to the interior of the sheep-cot, which turned out to be a cannabis plantation. The potted plants provided a touch of green, while the lamps hanging above them gave off a warm, orange light. By play’s end, half the company was either stoned or drunk; the Corin figure, however, refused to smoke pot, though he handed it out generously to the city folk. If the city was merciless, the drop-outs looked only half-hearted in their commitment to country life, and in need of drugs to see them through.

The other main theme in this production was the discovery of love by the younger characters. Celia and Rosalind were already obsessed with role-playing back in the city. By imitating situations from American soaps, sighing, hugging and kissing (with a hand between their mouths), they practiced what love would be like, preluding on Rosalind’s later education of Orlando. Rosalind, played by willowy Hannah Hoekstra, looked girlish in her skirt and socks, whereas buxom Celia was more mature in her pink jumpsuit. Besides, Celia’s role-play love affair with her cousin had a genuine edge, and she tried to touch her intimately. When Rosalind fell for Orlando, whose main attraction seemed to be that he was a fellow sufferer, Celia jealously dragged her friend away. She kept on sulking until she discovered her heterosexual passion for Oliver. Hoekstra was very impressive in her cross-dressed role as a streetwise swaggering youngster in a hoody and sunglasses, dispensing practical wisdom to the over-romantic Orlando.

As in the original, songs played an important role in this production, only they were mostly modern pop songs. Trying to keep warm, the old President’s company often sat close together and sang, as when they herded together around Old Adam, giving him a carrot to eat and singing to him, while the blizzard changed into a clear starry night in the background. The grand finale, the wedding scene, was again celebrated by song, when Old Adam, impersonating a geriatric Hymen, appeared with a rollator walker studded with lights, like his suit, and the guests sang “Here comes the sun”. Adam/Hymen metamorphosed into an imitation of Tom Jones, singing “It is not unusual to be loved by anyone”. Before the end, he collapsed from exhaustion, and had just enough breath left to instruct Rosalind to deliver her epilogue, in one of the many metatheatrical moments.

Although the production was often just funny, ridiculing city people’s pretended return to nature, the vagaries of young love, and Touchstone’s cynical sexual exploitativeness, such scenes were balanced by others of sheer magic. The computer-generated background pictures of sheep, the moon, and the stars of a frosty night, the songs in close harmony, created a sense of beauty to match the Christmas season in which this production premiered, thus preserving the spirit of Shakespeare’s festive comedy.

Paul Franssen

Author: Paul Franssen

Paul Franssen (1955) teaches at the English Department of Utrecht University. His main research and teaching interests are Shakespeare and the early modern period, South African Literature, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. He has co-edited a few books on Shakespearean matters, and is the author of Shakespeare’s Literary Lives: The Author as Character in Fiction and Film (Cambridge University Press, 2016).