Well worth the ever-extended wait, the lush new Melbourne Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s pleasantly pastoral comedy As You Like It proves an appealing year-end treat.
As 2021 bore on, with optimistically curated arts seasons toppling like dominoes, Melbourne Theatre Company steadfastly maintained the position of As You Like It in their calendar. The well-deserved reward to such steadfast patience, this lovingly crafted celebration is a theatrical pleasure to be savoured by cast, crew and audiences alike.
Reuniting a decent portion of the team behind the 2018 hit Twelfth Night, director Simon Phillips once again demonstrates his flair as merry ringmaster and insightful interpreter of the Bard. The glossy production showcases a sterling baker’s dozen of richly experienced talents, capably led by the inestimable Christie Whelan Browne.
While the effervescent 2017 Pop-up Globe staging of As You Like It bubbled over with zany energy, Phillips’ direction adopts a gentler, more dignified approach, focusing upon the inherent beauty and comedy of Shakespeare’s text. Crisp, engaging storytelling ensures that newcomers will readily follow the blithe shenanigans of multiple sets of star crossed lovers with ease.
Contributing both set and costume design, Alicia Clements crafts a visually striking world, realised on a lavish scale. The initial dukedom setting features sheer black walls and gilded columns with sumptuous matching costumes. What is effectively city life has a claustrophobic feel, with the lush greenery of the Forest of Arden enticingly symbolising the tree change so many harried urbanites crave.
Bringing an essential finishing touch to Clements’ costumes, and supporting the several cast members who play dual roles, the creatively styled wigs are of a very high standard. So high is the standard that it is a disappointing oversight not to acknowledge the wig design in the creative team listing in the program.
Enjoyment of As You Like It is sweetly enhanced by an instantly accessible set of songs from composers Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Sung and played live on stage, the music shines a further spotlight on the cast members’ talents, also serving to characterise the relaxed lifestyle of bucolic Arden.
Wonderfully in her element, Whelan Browne carries herself with charismatic confidence. Whelan Browne’s performance as Rosalind may be a star turn and yet her infectious generosity as a performer facilitates a ready chemistry with all of her scene partners, not the least of which is Georgia Flood as plucky cousin Celia. Whelan Browne particularly carries act two, and while it is disappointing that Rosalind’s epilogue is cut, it is nonetheless a pleasure to hear Whelan Browne in fine vocal form for the closing song.
Making an impactful Melbourne Theatre Company debut, James Mackay demonstrates his strength as a dashing leading man with soulful undertones, with his Orlando just as comfortable wrestling foes as reciting poetry.
In another impressive Melbourne Theatre Company debut, Tim Walter (as Jaques and Le Beau) stands out for his finely honed talent for speaking Shakespeare’s words with clarion, compelling beauty.
Chris Ryan is luxury casting as Oliver, elder brother of Orlando. A dynamic and magnetic performer, Ryan rounds out his performance with smooth vocals in a number of songs.
Wearing the production’s most dazzling costume, Daniel Frederiksen pushes the comic stylings of court fool Touchstone a tad too far, missing the chance to earn genuine laughs.
On the auspicious occasion of his fortieth production performance with Melbourne Theatre Company, elder statesman Richard Piper grounds his scenes with reliable authority and deftly underplayed humour, also revealing a nimble talent for playing guitar.
As You Like It is a most enjoyable way to welcome back theatre to the Melbourne stage. Here is hoping that the 2022 plans of Melbourne Theatre Company proceed at full unfettered strength.
The As You Like It program can be read online (in fact, it can only be read online; there are no printed copies).
The Melbourne Theatre Company Health & Safety policy can be read online..
Photos: Jeff Busby