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From riches to rags

Heather Neill discovers the importance of class distinctions in a new production of As You Like It

As You Like It

By William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company

Novello Theatre, London, March 2-25

Tel: 0870 950 0940

Dominic Cooke, directing the last of the plays in the RSC's Comedies season, sees not only a distinction in mood between the court and country scenes, but of class as well. As the play opens Rosalind is missing her father, the usurped Duke, although she lives a life of some privilege with her cousin Celia. When the two young women escape to the Forest of Arden they are, says Cooke, "displaced to a world that is hand-to-mouth, poor and dangerous. It is hard to survive at first, especially for Celia. It is relentlessly unsentimental."

In the forest Rosalind encounters Orlando, a young noble who has also suffered at the hands of his family, whom she had first seen defeating the court wrestler. Disguised for safety as a young man, she persuades Orlando to woo her as she supposedly plays at being Rosalind. Does Orlando guess her identity? Dominic Cooke doesn't agree with the writer James Shapiro (in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, published by Faber and Faber) that Orlando knows early on, but thinks that when Rosalind faints at the sight of a bloody kerchief, Oliver, Orlando's estranged brother, realises she is a woman and - now reformed - tells Orlando. This lends a different, ironic, mood to the final scenes in which Rosalind stage-manages the pairings of couples. Cooke says, "She is very managing. We have to understand why she is so vulnerable and nervous about trusting Orlando."

Orlando is not, Cooke observes, a romantic wimp: "Although untutored he is very bright. Rosalind is too shrewd to pick someone unsuitable. The crisis comes for her when she says she can live no longer by thinking. She has loved her freedom after her previously powerless role as a woman, but the time for pretence is over."

Oliver's instant transformation is possible in the forest, "a place of rebirth", says Cooke. "It isn't real - it has rabbits, lions, palm trees - but mythical, fairytale. It isn't the Forest of Arden Shakespeare knew, but he does draw on local knowledge." Two characters remain stubbornly "unpastoral" - the philsophical, cynical Jaques and Touchstone the Clown.

Jaques is "always searching. The community in the forest is the opposite to Duke Frederick's court where fools are silenced. Here debate and challenges are sought out." Touchstone establishes an unpromising relationship with the bucolic Audrey. "Who knows how that will turn out. Their relationship is, to begin with, mutually beneficial."

As You Like It explores love and life in both cynical and romantic aspects.

But it is Rosalind's play: "She goes on an extreme journey, a character without the existential exploration of Hamlet, but still multi-faceted."

For Cooke the play is cyclical, beginning at Christmas, "because that's when family arguments are most intense", spring-like in the forest, but autumnal, harvest-time, at the end.

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