Main Image: Bryan Probets (Touchstone) | Images: Al Caeiro
David Berthold is quickly setting up a tradition for La Boite: opening a season with a Shakespeare, directed by the Artistic Director himself. As You Like It was preceded by Hamlet (2010) and Julius Caesar (2011), in which Berthold proved he could bend the material to his will, creating sexy and contemporary productions. Make no mistake, As You Like It has a completely different feel, and is a more cohesive production than its La Boite forefathers. Indeed, it feels as though Berthold is infinitely more comfortable in the comedy of Shakespeare, and the result is superb production.
As You Like It centres mainly around the love quest of Rosalind (Helen Howard), the daughter of a Duke who has been usurped. Rosalind is banished from the new Duke’s court and takes her cousin Celia (Helen Cassidy) and the court’s jester (Bryan Probets) with her. In order to escape persecution Rosalind disguises herself as a man, and leads her band of exiles through the Forest of Arden in an attempt to find her exiled father (Kate Wilson). But the real spice of the plot lies in Orlando (Thomas Larkin) who is forced to flee the court when he is rejected by his older brother Oliver (Luke Cadden) and then upsets the fascist usurper Duke (Hayden Spencer) by challenging and defeating his wrestler, Charles (Thomas Carney). But before he flees, Orlando and Rosalind fall in love, only to be reunited once again in the Forest of Arden, but with Rosalind in a man’s disguise. Commence Shakespearean gender-bending comedy.
The show is stolen, in my opinion, by an absolutely spell-binding design. Renee Mulder’s costumes and set are absolutely breath-taking.
This is theatre design at its very best, peppered with all sorts of tricks and surprises that the audience never see coming … it’s a spectacular achievement.
Mulder’s work is accompanied by sublime music and sound from Guy Webster, and incredibly clever lighting from David Walters. Together, the trio create a forest of Arden that is warm and inviting. The evocation of a campfire makes the potentially cold La Boite theatre feel small and intimate. The gypsy aesthetic of the the exiled Duke and his kingdom has the appeal of a charming, cleaner Woodford Folk Festival. It’s a spectacular achievement.
There is a large ensemble cast featuring some of Queensland’s best and brightest. There are a handful of small parts here that are taken by student interns. They do well, but their gap of experience and confidence is very clear. I was surprised to learn Alec Snow was a student, given that he received a larger role. In saying this, he pulled it off as though he were a mature, experienced actor. His appearance as Hymen, the God of marriage, is a highlight of the play’s final scenes.
One of the most outstanding performances comes, predictably, from Bryan Probets, whose creation of Touchstone the jester is wild but exquisitely clear. His near-manic energy never compromises the clarity of his intention or the text itself. This is the skill of an experienced and intelligent actor, working with the occasionally problematic text to deliver a performance that is memorable but never over the top.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this Brisbane production is seeing Thomas Larkin being given his first truly substantial role on a Queensland mainstage. It’s easy to dismiss Larkin as little more than eye candy: his semi-nude appearance on posters for La Boite and Queensland Theatre Company this year clearly take advantage of his good looks. But in As You Like It we see that Larkin possesses far more skill.
Larkin has matured into a stunning performer … a true all-round and athletic actor accomplished in mind, body, and spirit.
His performance of Orlando is pitch-perfect. The problematic journey of the character (his passion to defeat his brother almost completely and conveniently forgotten in his love of Rosalind), is grounded with a deft hand. Larkin’s supporting roles over the last few years on Queensland stages has meant he’s matured into a stunning performer. He represents a true all-round and athletic actor, being accomplished in mind, body and spirit. There is no doubt that he is absolutely ready to be a leading man, and we should all be looking forward to his performance as Romeo later this year.
These are highlights of an overall very solid ensemble cast. There’s the occasional weak performance, but Trevor Stuart, Kate Wilson and Kathryn Marquet all do very good jobs and have memorable moments. Helen Howard makes for a comical and convincing Rosalind.
Berthold’s directing has several moments of genius that are portrayed incredibly well by the cast.
The wrestling match between Charles and Orlando is the best fight choreography a Queensland stage has seen in many years
Directed by Justin Palazzo-Orr, the choreographed stage violence is an absolute accomplishment for Larkin, Cadden and Thomas Carney as the Duke’s wrestler. Particularly skilled is Larkin’s comic delivery of falling in love with Rosalind, mere moments after the spectacuarly sweaty and acrobatic wrestling scene. The involvement of the audience in the scene – through Probert’s character – is timed perfectly and is absolutely necessary.
The goosebump inducing moment, however, is the famed ‘all the world’s a stage’ monologue delivered by Trevor Stuart. This is exquisitely crafted by Berthold, and is one of the most stunningly subtle (and simple) displays of meta-theatricality that I’ve ever seen. Stuart is simply brilliant within it.
The second act runs out of steam, but this is mostly due to the text. Shakespeare finishes the play in an unconvincing hurry, and introduces important elements rather late. Kathryn Marquet’s character Phoebe is an example of this, but Marquet handles the problem quite well. It’s unfortunate, as the second act seems like a lesser shadow to a spectacularly well-paced first. The set’s expansiveness in the first act ceases in the second, and doesn’t help the sense that the action is petering out. Some weak performances from smaller players (particularly around voice and diction) also don’t help matters. But all of this doesn’t muddy the waters too much, and the comedy of the final scene makes any previous transgressions more easily forgivable.
I will say that this was not the show I was expecting. La Boite’s marketing is confusing here. The poster, while intriguing, does little to actually communicate what the show is about. The same is to be said for the video ‘trailer’: a fifty-second compilation of images set to popular music. It looks very expensive, but does little to entice me to see the show. If anything, the poster and video seem to promote a show that’s based in sexuality. This is a shame, because the lush and vibrant aesthetic (not to mention extremely family-friendly content) of the actual end result is not at all mirrored in the public image.
Go see As You Like It. It’s a fantastic production of a problematic comedy that is not usually seen. It contributes to a wonderful year of Brisbane theatre with style and comedy, and will leave you humming merrily and yearning to return to the warm forest of Arden.
David Burton @dave_burton is a playwright from Queensland, Australia. His most celebrated work, April’s Fool, will be touring this country this year. David is also the co-host and producer of Stuff and Things, the incredibly popular Queensland arts podcast, and can be found on iTunes or by visiting www.stuffandthings.com.au