Roger Hodgman knows his As You Like It very well indeed. The veteran man of the theatre, former director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, has directed five productions of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy over his long career and has now embarked on a sixth with our own Black Swan State Theatre Company.
They've been three student productions and now three professional productions for Hodgman, each with its distinctively different approach to the tale of lovers, brothers and courtship problems within the fabled forest of Arden.
Hodgman agrees with the assessment that, in a sense, Shakespeare's forest setting for his characters' romantic entanglements is very much a plea for the freedoms and benefits of the natural environment over the strictures of the courts where dukes and their families exercise power.
Hodgman refers to Act II, Scene I where the Duke, exiled to the forest, proclaims: "Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court?" The Duke even finds that the seasonal changes of the forest - the "icy fang" of winter, for instance - are bracing and invigorating and that "sweet are the uses of adversity". That's one way of saying that getting back to nature is preferable to the machinations of the court.
"I find As You Like It is a very optimistic play," Hodgman says. "I've seen some very dark versions but I think Shakespeare is saying that people go into his forest of Arden and become better people.
"Even winter makes us feel who we are, and it's a place where people like Rosalind come into their own."
Rosalind is, of course, the heroine of this tale of lovers who find their better selves by living in the forest and being gently coaxed to an understanding of what it is to love and be loved.
Shakespeare's narrative device, as in many of his pastoral comedies, is based on the banishment of the heroine to the forest. Faced with the prospect of survival in an alien environment after the tribulations of being at court, Rosalind agrees to leave if she can take her faithful friend Celia with her.
And to prevent herself getting into harm, Rosalind decides to disguise herself as a boy, calling herself Ganymede. In the guise of a boy, Rosalind is able to manipulate the ardour of Orlando, who has also been banished to the forest.
"The sexual ambiguity of Rosalind disguised as a boy, and toying with Orlando is very entertaining," Hodgman says.
Rosalind is played by WAAPA graduate Jovana Miletic, who is making her debut with Black Swan.
The Sydney-raised actor began her career as a ballet dancer but auditioned for WAAPA after deciding she had fallen in love with acting. Since graduating in 2009 Miletic has spent most of her time in London but fortuitously happened to be in Perth when auditions for As You Like It were taking place.
"I was excited to get the role of Rosalind, which is one of my favourites," she says. "I even delivered one of Rosalind's speeches for my audition to get into WAAPA."
The production features some of Perth's most experienced actors, such as Geoff Kelso, Steve Turner, Igor Sas and Greg McNeill, plus recent and past graduates from WAAPA. Three of the cast are graduates from last year, also making their debut with the State company.
Hodgman has decided, like most directors of Shakespeare these days, to take a modern-dress approach to his production, with a stylised forest of Arden designed by Christina Smith.
While directors such as John Bell play fast and loose with the modern- dress approach, incorporating modern gadgetry and weaponry into the settings, Hodgman says he has not gone overboard with the modernisation.
"I once said I would never use a mobile phone in Shakespeare but I must admit there is one in this production."
He says the ability of Shakespeare to absorb such modernisms is testament to his way of writing for the theatre. "Shakespeare always creates a world where all sorts of things can happen," he says. "He actually wrote for an empty stage, and the language is there to tell the story, and to create the imagery of, for example, a forest."
"And if he wants to put sheep and goats in the forest, and even add a lion, as there is in As You Like It, he can do so. He was always a pragmatic man of the theatre . . . and unworried about geography or historical accuracy."