As You Like It moves to 1940s France in a new production. Heather Neill reports
David Lan is a great admirer of As You Like It but, for the modern director, its pastoral world provides something of a challenge. "As I understand it, at the time Shakespeare was writing, it had become a bit of a cliche. Many writers used the set of ideas associated with it to comment on the present. We have no way of connecting to it, so I wanted to find another cliche to give me and the audience real emotional tension."
The solution he has found is France in the late 1940s. The play is set in France (modern Belgium) anyway, in Ardenne, with Shakespeare clearly enjoying the nominal connection with the Warwickshire Forest of Arden.
The rightful duke and his court have been banished by the usurping Duke Frederick. His daughter Celia absconds with her cousin Rosalind to find her exiled father, but not before Rosalind has fallen in love with Orlando, who has been similarly mistreated by his older brother. When, disguised as a young man, Rosalind meets Orlando again she takes the opportunity to test his love by getting him to pretend to woo her as Rosalind in her adopted character, Ganymede.
By the end of the play no fewer than six couples have been matched, including Celia with Orlando's reformed brother Oliver. "It occurred to me that the world of the good duke and his court in the forest is a philosophical, moral one where the question is asked: how do you live?"
David Lan sees parallels with the post-war Left Bank in Paris, where Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and others debated philosophy. The chansons popular at the time, sung by Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, also seemed suitable in that they have a melancholy quality not unlike the songs in the play. There will be songs in the style of the time.
The part of Rosalind is often seen as a landmark for actresses, but: "The story is as much Orlando's as hers, although it is told sketchily. He begins the play with the wrestling match and he twice almost takes revenge on his brother. His is a spiritual journey, involving violence and love."
Rosalind and Orlando are traumatised at the beginning of the play, having both been made to suffer at the hands of others, which is why they take so long to admit their love to each other. To begin with it is Celia who takes the lead; Rosalind takes charge of others' lives in the forest, "trying to be good, giving people what they need".
David Lan says the play asks such questions as: how do you live with other people and yet be yourself? and how do you become yourself? Rosalind does so by pretending to be someone else, the boy Ganymede. Melancholy Jacques is also a man of contemplation rather than action, "a sketch for Hamlet".
* There will be a different production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in rep August 5-October 13 Tickets: 0870 609 1110.