Shakespeare was fond of the Forest of Arden. At Stratford, it was all around him: Henley, Hampton, Alcester and, on the fringes, Charlecote Manor, where as a pranksterish boy he poached deer from the Lucy estate.
Arden (also his mother's maiden name) fuelled the young playwright's imagination. And it is where As You Like It unfolds, deep in this Warwickshire Sherwood where an alienated Duke nurses family feuds and brings up teenagers to be budding Robin Hoods.
As the climax to the Peter Hall Company's season at the Theatre Royal, Bath, Hall himself is staging As You Like It - amazingly for the first time, "because," he says, "Vanessa Redgrave [the RSC's leggy Rosalind of yore] kind of wrapped it up." Now, in Hall's production, Rosalind - disguised as a boy - is played by his 21-year-old daughter Rebecca.
Rebecca Hall, who acted and directed at Cambridge, wowed the critics this year in Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession, directed by her father. It is brave to appear in her father's productions, even if he is a living legend. "She's extraordinarily talented," he says, as she tackles the Bard's longest female role. Rebecca Callard is playing Rosalind's co-conspirator Celia.
Rosalind's hearthrob is Orlando (Joseph Millson), one of those Shakespeare fellers who falls for a boy, "hangs odes upon hawthorns, and elegies on brambles", and wonders why he's besotted.
Shakespeare typically weaves together plot with comic subplot: cue Michael Siberry as the Clown and Eric Sykes - a scriptwriter as canny as the Bard himself, and a spry octogenarian - as Orlando's tongue-twisting Servant and a Vicar (no Dick Emery jokes, please) called Martext. The plum lines ("All the world's a stage") go to the acidic Jaques (Philip Voss), who "sucks melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs".
"As with all Shakespeare, As You Like It is totally ambiguous," says Sir Peter. "It deals in contradictions: boy-girl, life-death, suffering as a route to joy. The big wooing scene (Act IV, scene 1) between Rosalind (as a boy) and Orlando is one of the most tender in all Shakespeare. The play charts the progress of young people maturing towards finding a lasting love, sealed by marriage; that theme constantly preoccupied him, until the tragedies led him to explore a darker side.
"Eric is a tantalisingly good actor, as all stand-up comics are because they know if they don't treat an audience credibly, the whole thing'll flop. It's actually his debut in Shakespeare. He said to me yesterday, 'I wish I'd started this when I was 60 - we could have done a lot together!'"
The Peter Hall Company at Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448 844, www.theatreroyal.org.uk): previewing now, runs 18 to 30 Aug. Touring to Stoke (8-13 Sept, 01782 213 800); Nottingham (15-20 Sept, 0115 989 5555); and Bromley (22-27 Sept, 0870 060 6620)Reuse content