Set play

AS YOU LIKE IT. By William Shakespeare. Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

One of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays, As You Like It begins in emotional winter and ends in love's springtime, with the magical Forest of Arden transforming all the characters, says director Marianne Elliott. Her father Michael Elliott directed Vanessa Redgrave in the same play almost 40 years ago.

"I was fascinated by the idea of how people behave differently in different contexts," she says.

In the play, Rosalind escapes from the evil court, disguises herself as a man and hides in the Forest of Arden, where she meets Orlando, the man who loves her. Safe in her disguise, she makes him practise his courtship of her, pretending for his benefit to be a woman.

"All the court scenes are set in the Elizabethan period," says Elliott, "because the way women dressed in those days tells you about what they could or could not do."

When "a woman such as Rosalind changes from wearing a heavy dress and puts on man's clothing, she immediately looks very different". Audiences can see her sense of liberation.

The play's central theme of the contrast between the artificial court and the natural forest is emphasised by the sets, which are "hard and marble-floored for the court, with stunted miniature trees, but much more wild and luxuriant for Arden, with ral trees going right up to the lighting rig".

Elliott compares Rosalind with Viola in Twelfth Night, as "a shipwrecked character who's lost and entirely dependent and destitute, with nothing to her name".

Because her father has left her and there's no mention of her mother, "she's also emotionally destitute," says Elliott. At first she seems to be "in a state of depression".

"Orlando is also destitute, but his character is such that he just charges through. In the wrestling match, he physically fights the system, and Rosalind would like to emulate such masculine heroics," she says.

The Forest of Arden is a "place of absolute safety, which allows all the characters to explore their emotions and needs, far away from the paranoia of the court". Here "they can play, and through playing discover things about themselves".

The idea of play-acting is underlined in melancholic Jaques's "All the world's a stage" speech. "He counteracts the complacency of the courtiers, seeing perceptively where the human race is at."

His presence in Arden suggests that while at court there is censorship, in the forest there is freedom of speech. But, in the end, when all the characters find love by pairing off, he finds love in religion.

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