James Dacre’s eight-person revival of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy is as much a study of the foibles and strengths of women, as the many forms that love can take.
Deirdre Mullins and Beth Park have charming chemistry as the slapstick duo of Rosalind (Mullins) and Celia. Their on-stage relationship begins with flirtatious play-fighting and solidarity against men (they spit audibly whenever the opposite sex is mentioned) and good-hearted rivalry for Orlando’s affections, to a deep appreciation of each other’s character.
The decision to cast Jaques as a woman transforms the “seven ages of man” speech into a tragic monologue on the foolishness of men, and how much women suffer for them. Emma Pallant’s poignant speech implies the loss of a loved one and gives gravitas to a traditionally merely melancholy role.
Another gender-swap comes in the form of Audrey, played by John O’Mahoney, who also plays Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, which is a bit confusing. In copper wig, beard and frock, his Audrey is perfectly paired with Will Mannering’s sprightly, witty and slightly camp Touchstone.
Touchstone succumbs to Audrey’s wiles an a saucy hot tub scene, ingeniously suggested by a hatch in designer Hannah Clarks’ big box on wheels, painted with a leafy mural, which serves as the sole backdrop. It’s practical for a touring production like this, but when paired with whimsical musical interludes, played well by the cast on violins, bells, spoons, and a ukulele, it also evokes the transient and hallucinatory aspects of Arden. The marble pillars of the Globe are visible throughout the action, though, reminding us this is all just a play - a bit of fun. Just in case we forget what we’re watching, Jaques reminds us, pointing up to the gods and saying; “a circle of fools.”
Orlando’s character, played by Will Featherstone, seems underdeveloped and deliberately capricious in comparison with the robust female roles. Even before entering the forest where miraculous conversions take place, he almost strangles, then cowers from, his brother and also hints at an attraction to Celia before he settles on Rosalind.
While all manner of fickle, lustful and even tragic relationships are played out, Dacre’s intelligent direction shows Celia and Rosalind’s form of female love as the deepest and most enduring, and also the most fun.