If you go down to the wood

21st February 1997 at 00:00
It's a crowded Forest of Arden this spring with productions of As You Like It opened in Bristol and Nottingham, and in rehearsal at Colchester.

Director David Pountney (Nottingham) set out to "define the three worlds of the play, seeing Arden in relation to the other two, the ruthless, cold, harsh corporate world of the cruel court and the agribusiness world of the permanent forest dwellers."

So the banished Duke and his entourage regenerate themselves in the Forest, fleeing after a corporate takeover to become "middle-class escapees". But Shakespeare was under no illusion about any countryside idyll, "Corin's opening speech shows its vicissitudes". So the guitar-strutting incomers contrast with the hygenically uniformed, sheep-spraying rural dwellers.

For the visitors, Arden is a place for emotional and sexual exploration. Pountney details the Freudian import of the green snake (envy, phallic imagery) and lioness with dried dugs (a younger brother feeling deprived of maternal affection). "The romantic comedies explore gender and sexuality. As You Like It is a great improvisation around the theme of love. Which is why it doesn't really have a plot; the second half manoeuvres possibilities of relationships. " He instances Touchstone, who has fought his way up using the gift of the gab, being "tremendously relieved just to lie down with the country girl Audrey" and not, for once, to be liked for getting laughs.

Orlando in love journeys from his asinine verses to a deeper relation with Rosalind, who in turn learns what she's like through "the luxury of disguise" which allows her to behave as she would not normally dare. Her forest experience is indeed liberty and the opposite of banishment, a time when she comes to know herself.

Polly Irvin (Bristol) notes every character has their own Arden. Orlando, newly there, sees it as a desert place, while the Duke, used to it, sees it as more friendly with its babbling brooks. So Irvin's production does not try to define Arden closely, though designer Atlanta Duffy's impressionistic wood clearly shows the banished crew have a self sustaining, energy-generating lifestyle.

For Pat Trueman (Colchester), the relationship between Rosalind and Celia is the crucial one in the play. "Women are not welcome in a man's world" like the court, where Rosalind and Celia are the only females we see. The comedy builds to a celebratory end - "four weddings but no funeral" - examining many aspects of love: between brothers, father and daughter, male and female, and overall respect for humanity. No wonder "'love' is the most used word in the play'.

Bristol old Vic to March 8. Runs 3 hours 15 minutes. Tickets: 0117 987 7877 Nottingham Playhouse, to March 8. Runs 3 hours l0 minutes. Tickets: 0115 941 9419 Colchester Mercury Theatre, February 27-March 22. Tickets: 01206 573948

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