As You Like It is middle Shakespeare, probably lateish 1590s. It’s not one of the earlier happy comedies like the verbally dazzling Love’s Labour’s Lost or the rough and tumble The Taming of the Shrew but nor does it have the pensive quality, fringed with melancholy, of that world of wind and rain in Twelfth Night, a happy comedy so late it encompasses aspects of its opposite.
The dream Twelfth Night which was underway back in 2018 with Geoffrey Rush as Malvolio, the man who ultimately cries, ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!’ was diminshed because Rush had to withdraw but Simon Phillips’ production remained attractive because it had Christie Whelan-Browne as Olivia and this girl with the long legs and the singer’s voice has turned out to be a born high comedienne with lightning comic timing.
She brings the bounty of this talent to Simon Phillips’ Melbourne Theatre Company production at the Southbank Theatre of this version of pastoral that unfolds like the lilt of a summer’s day in the Forest of Arden to which young Orlando has fled and where he encounters Rosalind and her girlfriend Celia, though the former is dressed as a boy. There’s a good duke and a bad duke, a melancholy alienate called Jaques who gives the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech and a cynical clown Touchstone, a professional comic who keeps the girls company and amuses everybody.
It’s a kind of idyllic crypto-hippie play with a strong lyrical emphasis on nature which allows for wild zigzags of outcome and emotion though its defining quality is that of a free-for-all happenstance in which anything can occur (the wicked repent, lions spare sleeping heroes, grace and wild unlikelihood are part of the texture of things) where the breath of Nature may banish, at the touch of a wand, the intrinsic and all but caricatured wickedness of the world.
And at the centre of it all there’s Rosalind disguised as a boy who then pretends to be a girl in order to cure Orlando of his love. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s brightest creations – arguably his greatest comic role for a woman – and her scenes with Orlando of deep flirtation are things of wonder which are almost at the edge of being crotch-teasing though they have a swerving, fantastical wit even though they’re full of the breath and heat of heartfelt passion.
Christie Whelan Browne is a superb Rosalind and she is far and away the best thing about Simon Phillips’ consistently grand and overtly gorgeous production. This As You Like It, designed and with costumes by Alicia Clements, has an almost parodic lushness of clobber and plumage. The courtiers at the bad duke’s court in what looks like slightly later –perhaps Caroline – brocade with black plumes in their bonnets and much grandeur of silk and satin and splendour – are slightly over the top walking shadows of the unnatural though they are cousins to some of the worldlings in both Phillips’ Twelfth Night and his equally chocolate box Shakespeare in Love.
And it’s also true that the music by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall and with a whole band riffing away and a grand piano that’s somehow found itself in the Forest of Arden neither encourages a belief in nature nor allows the action – especially the central Rosalind/Orlando action – to proceed apace though it’s easy on the ear and allows Phillips to abide in that pleasing fantasia that allows him to half-believe that all stage work tends to the condition of the musical.
It is nonetheless true that there are some tender and humane moments. Richard Piper gives a relaxed and beautifully modulated performance as Old Adam, Orlando’s retainer, and Tim Walter as Jaques has a natural authority and clarity of diction that’s a cut above most people in the production.
Fortunately things warm up in the second half and the problem of space –which is somehow the crux in this back to nature flirtathon – suddenly allows Christie Whelan-Browne to come into her own. James Mackay as Orlando – an actor who was in the reboot of Dynasty a couple of years ago – is no Dominic West (who I saw play Orlando to Helen McCrory’s Rosalind and Sienna Miller’s Celia at London’s Wyndham). His diction is rough and middle Australian though he hits the right stops.
Christie Whelan Browne, though, is marvellous. She sits with her legs wide apart, she smacks Orlando’s arse and pushes him around like a mate, she scoffs and she larks around like a boy and at the same time she indicates with a breathtaking tension – only just staying on top of the charade she’s perpetrating or failing to – that she’s falling desperately in love with this boy who’s falling in love with the inner girl she’s projecting who is indeed her true pantingly besotted self.
It’s one of the greatest bits of comic invention in the vast repetoire of a great dramatist and Christie Whelan Browne does it with a stirring warmth that conveys pretty beautifully the reality of the rapture which is the initiation of something – a game – that can’t be given away till the final revelation. It’s a lovely performance and its more than worth the price of a ticket.
It’s also a tremendous affirmation in the power of the theatre as a supremely popular medium which is also cognate with the miracle of Shakespeare’s stage magic. And it makes forgivable the excesses of Simon Phillips’ hijinks. Daniel Frederiksen’s topplingly tall cockney-voiced Touchstone, full of endless banter, is a creature from pantomime. And the music goes on and on to an extent where some necessary question of the play is then to be considered. It’s great to see Christie Whelan Browne finally letting rip into song with a rocky version of ‘Heigh ho the wind and the rain’, though that’s actually a thoughtful and melancholy song, one which opens the way, from a distance, to the portal of tragedy. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter because Christie Whelan Browne’s mastery of the heart of As You Like It works.
It is the most classical thing in this production and the most romantic. Simon Phillips does hand-stands – scenically, costume-wise, and musically – to distract from the bitsiness and untidiness of the play but it’s the central love-play and the depth of paradox Christie Whelan Browne’s performance incarnates that saves the show.
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