Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: David Bevington
Peer Reviewed

As You Like It: Performance History

Film and television

16Productions of AYL in film and television have sometimes been carried away by film's ability to portray "realistic" settings. A case in point is Paul Czinner's 1936 black-and-white version. Despite a generous million-dollar budget and the presence of Laurence Olivier (aged 29) in his film debut as a diffident and almost femininely beautiful Orlando, this movie loses its way in saccharine levity. Rosalind, played by Elisabeth Bergner (the wife of the Hungarian-born director and herself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany), is irrepressibly frenetic in her giggles and somersaults. She and Celia (Sophie Stewart) simper together like the inmates of a young ladies' seminary. Their sororal jollity lends a tone of forced hilarity to the pastoral world of flute-playing shepherds and country lasses. A generous supply of trees, a thatched cottage, a duck pond, and suitable livestock fill out the mise-en-scène, leaving little to the imagination. The parts of Jaques (Leon Quartermaine) and Touchstone (Mackenzie Ward) are severely trimmed, lest deep thought trouble the gossamer fantasy of this never-never land. Touchstone courts Audrey (Dorice Fordred) decked out as a bunny rabbit. He is given no opportunity to expound on the Seven Degrees of Lying (5.4). All this is perhaps what one might expect from J. M. Barrie, of Peter Pan fame, as one of the adaptors of the script.

17The BBC version produced in 1978 for The Shakespeare Plays by Cedric Messina, with Basil Coleman as director, chooses a predictably "realistic" Masterpiece Theatre style for its settings. Glamis Castle in Scotland serves as the location for the opening sequences at court. The Forest of Arden is a place of very ordinary trees. Here the banished Duke and his companions seem out of place, longing plaintively for the comforts of home. Romance and literary satire alike are overwhelmed by the film's unpersuasive and constricting literalism, despite some adroit acting especially by Helen Mirren as Rosalind, Richard Pasco as Jaques, and Tony Church as Duke Senior. Hymen (John Moulder-Brown) is a strangely dressed young man rather than the god of marriage. This disappointing production manages to prove, by what it fails to accomplish, how paradoxical theatrical illusion can be: an overdone scenic realism can have the effect of making the experience seem less intense and involving for the audience than lively action on a bare stage or an experimental set.

18Kenneth Branagh's film AYL of 2006 tends to confirm the paradoxes of illusion that haunt the BBC version. Branagh's film too is set in a real forested environment -- one located in the vicinity of Gatwick, England, better known for its airport. The forest is colorfully handsome and visually rewarding, but by the same token it seems a bizarre place in which to encounter Sylvius (Alex Wyndham) and Phoebe (Jade Jefferies). Instead of coming before us as the amusing stereotypes of pastoral poetry as presented in Shakespeare's text, they are two young people who for some reason live in this neighborhood and go through Petrarchan paroxysms of unhappiness in love that have no discernible relationship to the genial literary satire of the play. Perhaps for a similar reason, Touchstone's wonderful disquisition on the seven "degrees of the lie" is cut; it wouldn't belong in the milieu of the film's rather ordinary though pretty forest. Other cuts deprive us of Rosalind's teaching Orlando that he must learn to love a real woman capable of jealousies and silliness rather than a disembodied goddess on a pedestal. The realistic premise of the forest seemingly demands that Orlando grapple with a real lion in saving the life of his brother -- a scene that Shakespeare more wisely reports through narration.

19To be sure, the film has its fine moments. Corin is as well played (by Jimmy Yuill) as one could hope; his conversation with Touchstone (Alfred Molina) on the relative merits of the country vs. the court works well. Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) is engaging and resourceful, and the part of Orlando is sensitively understood by David Oyelowo. The presumably color-blind casting might appear to backfire, however, when we perceive that all three sons of Rowland de Boys (Orlando, Oliver, played by Adrian Lester, and Jaques de Boys) are assigned to African American actors, as though to mark their separateness and kinship in this way. Celia (Romola Garai) makes an attractive companion for Rosalind. Kevin Kline raises his eyebrows with deliciously understated irony in the part of Jaques, but otherwise appears to be loafing through his assignment. His debate with Duke Senior (Brian Blessed) over the merits and defects of satire is severely truncated. Janet McTeer plays the part of Audrey with sluttish abandon when she is given a chance. Richard Briers, one of Branagh's most loyal actors, puts genuine feeling into the part of old Adam, but the business is lost in the film's welter of confusing idioms. Most bizarre, perhaps, is the decision to depict the court of Duke Frederick in a Japanese style, with rice-paper walls through which the invading Duke (Brian Blessing), made out as a kind of Darth Veder, can come crashing through the scenery in his brutish military takeover of his brother's dukedom. The Japanese motif has no discernible rationale other than, perhaps, to permit the part of Charles the Wrestler to be assigned to a Sumo wrestler (Nobuyuki Takano) of fleshly proportions. This particular Charles speaks no English and thus requires a translator. All this makes for an unusually incoherent film with some endearing moments.

20The modernized set employed by Christine Edzard in her 1992 filming of AYL confronts the paradoxes of theatrical illusion from an opposite point of view. Edzard translates the Forest of Arden into an urban jungle of graffiti-festooned warehouses. The play's exiles become the homeless of our modern world, sheltering themselves in polyurethane-covered cardboard boxes. Doubling of parts repeatedly juxtaposes the cynicism of court life with the restorative magic of communal bonding among the disadvantaged. Don Henderson plays Duke Frederick as the ruthless boss of a commercial firm, while also doubling as Frederick's victimized brother, Duke Senior; Andrew Tiernan is both Oliver, a success-driven yuppie, and Oliver's dropout brother Orlando. Roger Hammond doubles the parts of Le Beau and Corin, thereby contrasting courtly sycophancy with rugged rural honesty. Cross-gendered changes of identity are similarly updated: Emma Croft as Rosalind transforms herself into a scruffy youth in a hooded sweatjacket and wool navy watchcap. These doubling and mirroring effects are vibrant theatrical metaphors for sibling rivalry and unisex role-playing. The drab dockyard setting is, to be sure, continually at odds with the play's evocative poetry. Many episodes -- the wrestling match, the quipping of Touchstone (Griff Rhys Jones), the cynic philosophy of Jaques (James Fox), the innocent bawdry of country wench Audrey (Miriam Margolyes) -- seem inexplicably out of place. Some transformations are more successful, as when the sleeping Oliver (4.3) is threatened not by a lioness and a snake but by ghetto-dwelling muggers. The overall result is uneven and at times baffling, but in its best moments the film is daringly experimental.

21On the whole, AYL has met with greater success in the theatre than in film or television. Perhaps that is not necessarily the case, but the screen has yet to discover (other than in Edzard's very interesting attempt) how to create a world of imagination in which Shakespeare's visionary art is not reduced to the ordinary and the banal.