Audacious staging as we like it

Jovana Miletic and James Sweeney in As You Like It. Picture by Gary Marsh


As You Like It

By William Shakespeare

4 stars

Black Swan State Theatre Company

Heath Ledger Theatre


In As You Like It, Shakespeare's masterpiece of wit and wisdom, the message is clear. What matters is freedom and love, and a play dedicated to them both must, as its beautiful epilogue demands, be forgiven its faults.

Roger Hodgman's carefree production for Black Swan is a deserving beneficiary of this boon. If its tempo is a little uneven, and if some of its setpieces topple over into silliness (you might not find either the case), these problems are more than compensated by its fealty to the spirit of the play, and the audacity of its staging.

This starts with Christina Smith's set. She was the first designer to successfully wrangle the Heath Ledger stage with Rising Water in 2011, and her brilliant set for last year's Other Desert Cities made me want to live in it.

Here she commandeers the theatre's interior for the court scenes and peels it back for a Forest of Arden as majestic and contemplative as a cathedral or a grove of giant redwoods. Her work is half the production's battle won.

There are other highlights. Songwriting may not be Shakespeare's strongest suit but composer Ash Gibson Greig and Brendan Hanson, as the chanteur Amiens, give these ones currency and expressiveness.

The fight between young Orlando (the appropriately attractive James Sweeny) and Charles the Wrestler (fight director Andy Fraser himself) is edge-of-your-seat stuff; it's easy to understand the concern and admiration it provokes in the two schoolgirls looking on from ringside.

There are plenty of other scene-stealing performances, from Geoff Kelso's capricious Duke Frederick to Cecelia Peters' flibbertigibbet Phebe, Caitlin Beresford-Ord's accommodating Audrey, Greg McNeill's canny yokel Corin and Hanson's hilariously camp Le Beau.

The play's two famous wits, the putrid clown Touchstone and the overcast philosopher Jacques, are, finely drawn by Luke Hewitt and Steve Turner.

Neither character, though, is a match for the play's great personality, Rosalind.

There are misconceptions of age in Shakespeare, and what audiences (and critics) expect from his characters. The playwright's eyes, though, are always wide open, so whether it's the university student Hamlet, the barely adolescent Romeo or the failing Lear, he understands exactly the strengths and weaknesses that come with their age; Jaques' famous "All the world's a stage" is not mere verbal gymnastics.

So I was a little wary of Rosalind (Jovana Miletic) and Celia (the sweet, spirited Grace Smibert) as BFF schoolgirls. They are bright young things, to be sure but the journey they must make from their giggles and shy glances at the court to Rosalind's transcendent wisdom and grace in the forest is formidable.

I needn't have worried. This Rosalind may be younger, and more coltish, than I imagine her to be, but Miletic is gorgeous, unfailingly authentic and self-possessed throughout. (I don't want to be a jinx, but there is something of Cate Blanchett about her.)

Orlando, the object of her incomparable affection, might be the luckiest character ever put on a stage.

As You Like It ends on June 1.