Take their boughs

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Heather Neill looks forward to an As You Like It that emphasises its rural aspects

As You Like It Royal Shakespeare Company Stratford-upon-Avon

Gregory Thompson has chosen to set his production of As You Like It in the 1840s. "I felt that we no longer understand the political climate of Elizabethan England.

"As You Like It is about land enclosures and Catholics being dispossessed.

The first Poor Law came in in 1601. It was illegal to hunt deer in the royal forest. My first preference might have been to set it, if not in its own period, in 2003, but the political background is so different, and then there's cross-dressing: it's quite common now to mistake a girl for a boy and vice versa.

"But there were land enclosures in the Victorian period. People like Corin could no longer live off the common land: they either had to work for someone else or live illegally. I wanted the reality of dispossessed people to come through. The political background may not be the first thing you think of about the play, but it's definitely there."

Structurally, Thompson believes, it is Orlando's play. "It is his journey which we follow to a resolution. It is Rosalind's play theatrically, though; we suffer with her." He says her testing of Orlando, allowing him to think she is the boy Ganymede as he writes his poems to her and sticks them on trees, does not show her to be manipulative: "She doesn't believe Orlando really loves her. She's been hurt, abandoned by her father, exiled by her uncle. How can she trust? She is highly imaginative and thinks on her feet, but that's not the same as being manipulative."

Hymen, the god of marriage, appears in the final scene, but Thompson says this is not a fairy-tale touch. "These are incredibly devout people for whom marriage is very important. We are in a neo-Platonic Christian world, but a representation of the Christian God was forbidden onstage so here is someone else striving to create unions, marriages that will heal pain. The play is full of damaged people for whom love is painful. The role of Hymen is to open their hearts."

In one sense the Forest of Arden represents a lost Eden, a new Jerusalem, but what is odd, says Thompson, "is that there are two Ardens. The contrast between these is greater than the contrast between the court and the forest. One, the exiled Duke's, is a masculine world where the men hunt deer deep in the woods, the other, Rosalind's, is feminine. This is a place of pasture land which skirts the edge of the forest."

Jacques' questioning of life's purpose puts him, for Thompson, "close to the heart of the play. He is not a cynic. He is a bankrupt who has lost everything. He has had the harshest lessons to learn and is terribly afraid of death. In the 'seven ages of man' speech he is coming to terms with the fact that we are all going to die. He wants to understand life and follows the Duke when he has found a religious man to talk to."

Thompson's production promises to be warm and positive, an emotional experience. "The play is about pain, but it also shows that pain can be healed."

The production will travel to Newcastle in November. Education events include a director's talk on March 19, "Music and theatre" on March 29 and an introduction to the play on April 11 Tickets tel: 0970 6091110RSC Education tel: 01789 296655

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