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VERY LIKEABLE INDEED

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AS YOU LIKE IT
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Lisa Warrington
Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School

at Te Whaea - Basement, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
From 17 Jun 2014 to 26 Jun 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe, 19 Jun 2014


The women in Shakespeare's pastoral comedy As You Like It are clever, witty, resourceful independent, spirited and passionate. The men are variously murderously competitive and selfish, physically heroic yet soppily besotted, mockers of love, misanthropes, or simple fellows with basic needs. 

Oliver, eldest son and heir to the late Sir Rowland de Boys, wants it all for himself, has denied his youngest brother Orlando everything including an education and schemes to have him eliminated in a wrestling match. Because, ironically, he has nothing better to do than get physically fit, Orlando wins the fight which makes Oliver hate him even more. (de Boys will be de Boys, eh.)

Rosalind and Celia are inseparable loving cousins despite the banishment, to the Forest of Arden, of Duke Senior (Rosalind's father) by his usurping brother Duke Frederick (Celia's father). So when Frederick banishes Rosalind too, Celia goes with her. But first Rosalind falls in love with wrestling champ Orlando and the feeling is mutual although he becomes tongue-tied and can say nothing before he too flees for his life, to the very same forest, as it happens.

Rather than emphasise the darker, more brooding elements, as some have done, Toi Whakaari's guest director of this graduation production, Lisa Warrington, delights in the play's whimsical charm and fun. She aligns the cast of 14 and the wealth of designers, constructors, production and technical crew to an intriguing exploration of Shakespeare's insightful commentary on human relations.

Apart from Rosalind making like a man as Ganymede, there has been some necessary gender bending to accommodate the 6 male / 8 female casting pool. The gossipy courtier Monsieur Le Beau is now Madame La Belle, played with corseted flair by Sara Stone, who doubles delightfully as the goatherd Audrey, raunchily ready for love. The old shepherd Corin is now a shepherdess of indeterminate age, whose earthy pragmatism is vividly realised by Johanna Cosgrove.

Rosalind's banished father has become her mother, a Duchess (attended by a female singer, Amiens, and female Forester). Georgia Bowker gives a healthy account of her, pursuing fitness and tranquillity while possessed of a generous spirit.

The doublings are also as well thought out as they are well wrought. Sonny Tupu metamorphoses from the old retainer Adam to young love-struck Silvius, desperate to win the affections of the shepherdess Phebe, whose impossible love for Ganymede is deeply felt by Christel Chapman – who earlier does service at court as a snapping-to-it servant called Dennis.

Having set the plot on its course as the cruel Duke Frederick, Taylor Barrett comes back to play the gentle farmer William, in heart-rending unrequited love with Audrey, who is won over by the ever-witty Touchstone, busily mobilised and crisply articulated by Patrick Carroll.

Adam Stone is all roaring physicality as the wrestler Charles before becoming the cerebral Jaques, splendidly characterised as a rather tormented wannabe songwriter. The nasty de Boys brother Oliver transforms too, but as himself, played intensely then humanely – after Orlando saves him from being savaged by a lioness (off) – by Heremia Tuiloma.

On alternate nights the actresses playing Rosalind and Celia change over to Amiens and the Forester, and vice versa. Opening night sees Laura Thompson's elegant and intelligent Rosalind become an astute and playful Ganymede, abetted by Comfrey Sanders' spirited and pragmatic Celia-cum-Aliena, who tends to laugh at love until struck by it herself.

On the second night, Michelle Ny's more physically open style makes her Rosalind more overt while Vanessa Kumar's Celia seems more grounded and astute. All bring an intelligent understanding to the text and speak it with a natural flow, but in neither case do I clearly get Celia's dry bemusement at Rosalind's besottedness, so only briefly find myself wondering if she is hiding a jealousy at her best friend's preoccupation.

Both Rosalinds go with the idea that male clothing is enough to convince others they are men, so add little in the way of credibly masculine physicality when buddying up to Orlando to test his love and help him articulate it better. (I assume the original all male productions would have been more convincing with both the initial femininity then the supposedly faux masculinity.)

Song is the favoured entertainment in the forest and they are plentiful, with a couple being seconded from Twelfth Night, and most are led by Amiens with subtle vocal backing from the full cast. Vanessa Kumar brings a powerful soul-singer's voice to the role and Comfrey Sanders' voice is also strong and pleasing.

Michele Ny is a physically lively Forester while Laura Thompson is less apparent in the role (although that may be because I sit in a different seat on the second night). 

Sound designer and composer Te Aihe Butler also appears as a Wandering Musician, accompanying the songs and inserting magical guitar string stings whenever love strikes. His compositions brings a contemporary feel to the old words and the company embraces them fully.

Lisa Warrington has wilfully tinkered with the text, making judicious cuts (the Vicar, Hymen, etc), dropping in morsels from other plays and concocting a whole brief scene (ransacking Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and The Winter's Tale). Well why not? It all works well.

The wrestling match is well choreographed by movement and dance coach Chris Jannides, making its point without making us fear anyone really gets hurt.

Having a luxury of two discrete spaces to work in, set and props designer Ivy Urquhart contrasts a geometrically columned and floor-patterned Court with a loose and festive ‘Forest of Arden', littered with wooden pallets and festooned with coloured lights, evoking a woolshed party where everyone hangs out while specific scenes and actions come into focus as, when and where required.

Haami Hawkins' lighting designs are effectively pristine in Court and warm in the Forest, and unobtrusively operated by Zosia Lis. Alexandra Guillot's costume designs are impressively Elizabethan with a few more modern touches in Court, and marvellously post-modern in the Forest, judicious selecting and mixing styles according to character.

The transition from one space to another is theatrically splendid and well facilitated by the crew. Blessed with such strong backstage and technical support, the actors are free to focus on their work and do so with alacrity, speaking the text as if they were born to it, delighting in their characterisations, manifesting the dynamics of changing relationships and sharing it all with a generous spirit.  

This As You Like It is very likeable indeed.
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