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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: September ::
Re: *As You Like It* Productions
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0909  Monday, 28 September 1998.

From:           Rosalind C. King <
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Date:           Monday, 28 Sep 1998 12:41:36 +0000
Subject: 9.0853  *As You Like It* Productions
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0853  *As You Like It* Productions

Debbie Barrett-Graves asks for:
>'any tips ... with regard to source materials, performance histories,
>etc., which have been especially helpful to [us] - either in the
>classroom or in a live performance' of AYLI.

I am the dramaturg for the English Shakespeare Company's productions of
AYLI and A&C directed by Michael Bogdanov, which have been in Bath and
Salisbury this summer and are about to go to the Hackney Empire in
London for a short season (13th - 24th October). Both plays are in
modern dress, AYLI's set causing some consternation among reviewers as
it's a group of three, tall, wheeled, metal, skeletal frames which can
be whirled about into different configurations for 'forest' and court
without a green leaf in sight. The music has proved very popular: blues
and  bluesey humour (amazing what you can do with a couple of silver
spoons and a salt cellar), with a hip-hop "Lover and his Lass". The text
is almost complete, but with two instances where the respective clowns
have been encouraged to say more than is set down for them! Rosalind is
played by a black actress, newcomer Ivy Omere, who uses her familial
Nigerian accent for the character's disguise as Ganymede. There are a
number of other UK regional accents as well. The production thus touches
on several of the issues that have featured on this list recently.

This is  the programme note I wrote for these two productions.

Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It are not often paired together,
but  the correspondences between the two plays are striking - a fact
which belies their conventional separation into Roman Tragedy and
'happy' comedy. Both examine the heart-breaking as well as the ecstasy
of being in love and both explore the question of just what it means to
live a good life. Is it the pursuit of personal happiness, or the denial
of bodily pleasure in favour of spiritual purity?

The main characters in both plays are the absolute governors of their
respective worlds. Thus their personal ethics and choice of life-style
shape their countries' politics. Modern audiences may be surprised to
find politics in a play like As You Like It and its cast of pastoral
shepherds, but Shakespeare's original audience would have acknowledged
pastoral as a relatively safe way of debating the ethics of good
government. The invention of a far-away or mythical country offers the
opportunity of obliquely satirising the political and religious systems
closer to home. Indeed it was (wrongly) thought that the word 'satire'
was derived from the word 'satyr'. Satyrs are the lustful, goat-legged
followers of Dionysus (otherwise known as Bacchus) the god of fertility,
vegetation and therefore wine. They populate the classical pastoral
landscape along with the shepherds, and provide some of its fascination
as well as its danger; there is death too in this idealised
countryside.  Shakespeare's Arden likewise is not simply a pretty place,
but one which will stretch all the mental and physical resources of the
traveller.  Snakes and lions lurk amongst its olive trees.

Historical Egypt with its crocodiles, pyramids, extreme wealth and
strange deities is no less extraordinary a place than mythical Arden.
The Greek traveller and writer Herodotus describes the Egyptians both as
being the opposite in every respect of all other peoples, and as the
originators of much Greek philosophy and religion. He thus considers
Greek Dionysus as the same god as Osyris, husband of Isis, the goddess
who embodies Egypt and with whom Cleopatra identifies. The frenzy of
death, dismemberment and apotheosis common to the worship of both these
Egyptian and Greek gods has its modern, everyday counterparts.
Shakespeare extends the hint given in his source that the man who
brought Cleopatra her death in the shape of an asp in a basket of figs,
was a countryman. In the play, he becomes a clown speaking in
mock-learned style on the nature of salvation, in the manner of a long
tradition of English satires on class and religious struggle featuring
humble ploughmen: he is a deliberate bad joke on the kind of religious
difference that still makes martyrs and murderers in so many parts of
the world.

Both plays consciously exploit the fact that women characters on the
Elizabethan stage were performed by male actors - Cleopatra who is happy
to play the part of Isis is terrified of being led in triumph to Rome to
see a squeaking boy perform her as if she were a whore. Elsewhere she
dresses Antony in her 'tires and mantles' while herself wearing his
sword. In As You Like It, Rosalind dresses in disguise as a man. This
transvestism is actually a common classical and hence Elizabethan
paradox, often personified by Hercules. He is the hero and demi-god
invoked by Rosalind in As You Like It to help Orlando fight the Duke's
wrestler. It is likewise Hercules who is said by the soldiers to be
deserting Antony when they hear strange music in the streets at night.
One of the stories about Hercules is that he was imprisoned by a woman
and dressed in her clothes. Here, as in various other stories about him,
his heroism is achieved through  shame. He is thus frequently used in
classical and renaissance art to embody the ethical choice of the good
life: between virtue and pleasure. In these plays, this choice is
presented as the difference between Rome and Egypt; endurance of the
rough winds of Arden and indulgence in the fruits of the forest; pure
love and sexuality. The secret of the paradox of this choice, is that it
is not a choice, but something to be transcended or reconciled. This is
easier said than done. Perhaps the only real difference between comedy
and tragedy is not that one is happy and the other sad, but that it may
only be possible to achieve such transcendence and still remain alive,
within the artifice of comedy.

Both plays exhibit a range of behaviour covered by the word 'love':
from friendship (between men, between women, and even between men and
women) through homo-erotic desire, and hetero-sexual romantic love, to
lust, and to love/hate. The wooing of Ganymede by Orlando is perhaps
more dangerous for the glimpse of real flesh-and-blood woman that
surfaces periodically in Shakespeare's language than in the sight of two
boys acting out a hetero-sexual relationship. The wonder and the lure of
the woman's body is the Dionysic mystery in which may lie destruction,
as Antony senses right from the beginning of the play. What will happen
to Rosalind and Orlando when they get back home, away from the
transformative influence of Arden, is anyone's guess.

(c) Ros King
School of English and Drama
Queen Mary and Westfield College
University of London
 

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