Sunday, January 3, 2010

As You Like It (Part 1): Plot and Production

This post is part of my series on Shakespeare's comedies. The series is an indulgent exploration of philosophic themes in Shakespeare's comedies. I have already done one post explaining what is meant by designating a play a "comedy". As discussed there, most Shakespearean comedies incorporate tragic elements.

I have decided to begin this odyssey with As You Like, which is a play I like well enough although I know that some find it intolerable. More pity them.

What Happens?
Since I plan on writing several mini-essays on this play, I feel it incumbent upon me to summarise what it is all about. But frankly the information is so readily available elsewhere, and these essays are mainly designed for those who have already read or watched the play, that it seems a trifle unnecessary. Nonetheless, here is the gist of things.
  • A group of characters are forced to flee their aristocratic lives to go live in the Forest of Arden. This is a mythical pastoral setting in which they discourse on the nature of life, love and everything in between.
That's it. The play has no other plot worth talking about since that's not the point. The point is to provide a forum for the comedic exploration of life. The genius of the play derives from the richly philosophical dialogues and speeches, which I will be covering in later posts.

If you think this is a bit skimpy on detail, then don't worry. Additional plot points will be fleshed out when I consider the different themes and characters.

As with all things Shakespearean, watching a performance is absolutely essential to understanding the play. Reading the written word can only take you so far. A good performance will get you to think about the play in different ways. I know this from my own experience: there are pauses, emphases and inflections that give weight and volume to certain lines that often seem incongruous on the page. Actions, gestures and facial expressions also do much to bring the world of the play to life.

But since we don't all have easy access to top quality theatre productions, we have to rely on film productions. I have watched two such productions of the play: the BBC television production from the late 1970s/ early 1980s; and the 2006 Kenneth Branagh directed adaptation.

The BBC production is faithful, if a trifle dull. There was a time when you could watch it on thebardtube (a channel on youtube). Alas, that channel has been shut down in the past few days.

The Branagh adaptation is a different story. I enjoyed it immensely, although I have read terrible reviews. Here are some reasons why I like it:

The Japanese Setting - Branagh chose to set the play in a British enclave in 19th C Japan. This makes for a particularly humorous rendition of the wrestling match (Act 1, Scene 2) which becomes a sumo wrestling match. I have seen some objections to the Japanese setting on the grounds that it is a quintessentially English play. I can't follow that. One may as well object to the Japanese setting of the Mikado on the grounds that it is a quintessentially British satire. I might object to someone setting Shakespeare's historical plays in a different country and era, but the comedies are really timeless and universal.

The Forest of Arden - the Forest of Arden truly sparkles in this film. The long rolling shots in some scenes add to our appreciation of it and it provides the perfect backdrop for the exploration of the pastoral dream (more on this in future posts).

The Acting - There are some truly wonderful performances in this film. Brian Blessed and Richard Briers are dependable, as always; Kevin Kline does an excellent turn as the melancholy Jaques; Alfred Molina embodies the ironic wit of Touchstone; and Bryce Dallas-Howard makes Rosalind even more appealing than she is on the page.

So yeah, all-in-all I endorse the Branagh adaptation. There have, no doubt, been better stage productions, but as far as film productions go this is the one-to-watch.

In the remainder of my posts on As You Like It I will be covering:
  • The Pastoral Dream - Is the simple life a myth?
  • Four Visions of Love
  • Fortune and Nature: The Tapestry of Existence
  • Touchstone
  • Jaques - Cynic or Realist?

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