Full Disclosure: I attended this show free of charge in return for agreeing to write a review of the performance. The review has not been seen by the production prior to publishing, and all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Arden Production’s reimagined version of As You Like It is not your average faithful production. Characters are combined or compressed. Speeches are passed around and repurposed. Genders are changed, and sexual orientations updated accordingly. Little is left untouched or unrevised, and you leave with a very different experience than had you seen, say, the Bell Shakespeare Company cover the same work.
But this all fits well with the poetry of Shakespeare. Love is love no matter the identity of those who profess it, and a promise is a promise, whether you’re Phoebus or Phoebe. Arden have produced a radical but respectful adaptation, allowing it to explore new issues with letting his words ring as true as ever.
The opening night (after a preview performance) was a very solid start to a generous run for the play, the cast in top form, with impeccable live music and a tight technical ship that produced no visible errors.
Being played in a former church hall, the actors perform a stylised and abstract rendition of the play in the centre of the audience’s circle of chairs. An actor might leave in one direction before suddenly emerging from another, speaking lines in a way that clearly indicates they are not truly part of the scene but rather reflecting on it. Two performers finish their speeches before undertaking a serious of almost dance like movements as the music builds around them, before they and the guitar fall silent.
The actors are to be commended for their performance, some taking on wildly different characters as the play transitioned from A Duchess’ court in the first act to a forest in the second. No actual changes to the set occur apart from the addition of a couple of stumps, and yet the locations and mood are clear.
While I thought all the performers were equally skilled, I wanted to especially mention an actor who took over from another only a week before opening. The director informed us that he would be prompting if needed before the play began, and it is a credit to the actor that aside from one or two polite requests for his line, we otherwise could not tell that this was relatively new material for him.
The music is also a particular highlight, composed especially for this production and played live with the guitar on the composer’s lap, the stings and body of the guitar all serving as instrument for a surreal score that perfectly fits the non-naturalistic performance.
It must be mentioned that your experience of the play might be somewhat affected by where you choose to sit. Sitting in a circle around the stage does give you a wonderfully intimate and varied view of the proceedings, but by its very nature means you sometimes will have nothing to look at but the back of a performer’s head (or if you’re particularly unlucky, squinting to see through a light pointing right at you).
But as long as you choose your seat with care, (preferably somewhere where you can also spot the guitar playing, just don’t get too distracted watching it and miss the whole play) you can expect a thought-provoking play performed by a cast that quite clearly know what they’re saying and respect the play they’re doing. I definitely recommend it; you won’t be disappointed.
As You Like It Reimagined runs until October 4th at the Bluestone Church Arts Space in Footscray. Tickets and more information can be found at http://www.ardenproductions.com.au/as-you-like-it/ever-wanted-to-be-somebody-youre-not/ and https://www.melbournefringe.com.au/program/event/view/a700f9c0-1cb7-4ef9-a220-ca0ed75d513c