Review: As You Like It (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 21 – Mar 28, 2015
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: George Banders, John Bell, Gareth Davies, Alan Dukes, Emily Eskell, Charlie Garber, Zahra Newman, Kelly Paterniti, Dorje Swallow, Tony Taylor, Abi Tucker
Images by Rush

Theatre review
As You Like It is not one of Shakespeare’s phenomenally poignant stories, nor is it an exceptional work of fantastical exuberance. It offers interesting personalities and amusing situations, but lacks a sense of grandeur and elements of surprise. Shakespeare might be idolised in all the right quarters, but his writing is certainly not without its detractors. His use of language especially, can be alienating for twenty-first century audiences, and when handled with less than expert proficiency, productions rarely deliver good results. Peter Evans’ direction never quite takes flight. There is plenty of investment into characters who seem to be dynamic and colourful, but we struggle to relate to anyone. Action on stage is lively and confident, but nobody connects with authenticity.

It is never certain where the centre of the play lies. The obvious focus would be on the love story between Rosalind and Orlando, but the remarkably poor chemistry between the two leads leave us searching for something more meaningful, or at least with some level of appeal. Zahra Newman as Rosalind is effervescent and a joy to watch when given the opportunity to take centre stage, but the important quality of romance in her narrative does not convince. Playing Orlando is the regrettably miscast Charlie Garber, whose charming presence and considerable comedic talents prove not to be sufficient for the role to take shape in our imagination. He does his best to exhibit commitment to the more dramatic sequences, but his efforts pale in comparison to when he gets to play the fool.

The stars of the show are its designers. Michael Hankin’s set brings to the stage a glorious interpretation of a Shakespearean forest, with floral garlands cascading from above, adding beautiful dimension and breathtaking hues to the performance space. Lighting by Paul Jackson is sensual but also varied, effectively depicting the movement of time and transformation of space. Kate Aubrey’s costumes are subtle and elegant, with just enough theatrical flourish to help actors establish mood and traits of individuality. Music and sound are utilised with great impact to influence atmosphere and to provide a sense of unpredictability. Kelly Ryall’s songs are pure entertainment, and an excellent touch that helps enrich an otherwise unexciting plot structure.

John Bell plays Jacques, and late in the second act, delivers the famous “all the world’s a stage” monologue. For a moment, the theatre turns electric, and descends into an attentive hush. The magic is real, and there is no mistaking its existence when it does take over. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a very big team of talents to put on a show of Bell Shakespeare’s usual ambitious scale, but on this occasion, it seems that the sum of its parts has not resulted in a collaboration greater than the whole.