As You Like It: Is Shakespeare’s comedy the right vehicle for a meditation on the refugee crisis?

Michael Scholar Jr.'s As You Like It draws inspiration from the refugee crisis.

Playing Orlando in As You Like It, William Edward serves notice that he is an actor to be watched.

There’s a lot going on. And a bunch of it works.

In setting As You Like It, Shakespeare’s comedy about banishment, director Michael Scholar Jr. draws inspiration from the global refugee crisis. The combination isn’t always a good fit, but it does result in the creation of a multi-textured, sometimes surprising world.

The plot itself is pretty darned twisty. Duke Frederick has banished his brother, Duke Senior, and stolen his property. But Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, is still living in Frederick’s court: she is inseparable friends with Frederick’s daughter, Celia. Citizens are starting to take Rosalind’s side, however, so Frederick banishes her, too, and Rosalind and Celia hightail it into the forest of Arden with the court fool Touchstone in tow.

Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior, is also hiding out in the forest, but Rosalind isn’t overly concerned with their reunion. That’s because she has fallen in love with a young courtier named Orlando who, as luck would have it, has also fled to the woods because his brother has been plotting to murder him. The courtship between Rosalind and Orlando is complicated by the fact that, for safety, Rosalind has disguised herself as a youth named Ganymede.

Riffing on the notion of dislocation, Scholar and his creative team have turned Arden into a kind of refugee camp and created a world that feels improvisational, handmade—and communal.

The excitement of disruption and the possibility of change hit you as soon as you enter the theatre. The actors are already in the house. Mostly dressed by costumer Mara Gottler like impoverished bohemians, they’re fooling around, giving one another backrubs, playing musical instruments, and singing. Set designer Lauchlin Johnston has covered the theatre’s seats with drop cloths, as if the place is still being painted. It feels like everything is in flux, being thrown together on the spot. And this world is friendly: cast members offer patrons tiny cups of herbal tea.

It’s a terrific opener and this sense of creativity continues throughout the show. Johnstone designed the props as well as the set, and, in his vision, the deer that Duke Senior and his men hunt is represented by a backpack that has a set of antlers attached to the lid. The love poems to Rosalind that Orlando leaves all over the forest become heart-emblazoned T-shirts that hang from clotheslines near the theatre’s ceiling.

No doubt, the sense of resilience that’s implicit in this creativity speaks to the experience of some refugees. But there’s also a depth and darkness to the world’s current refugee crises that the frothy As You Like It—think about that title for a minute—is not built to address. The play’s dispossessed are gentry who are lounging, temporarily, in a romantic woodlot, where they meet amusingly colourful poor people.

That said, the play has its own dark side—which Scholar’s production mostly fails to realize. When Frederick banishes Rosalind, for instance—and threatens her with execution if she doesn’t move quickly—the brutality of his action barely registers. Jacques, a member of Duke Senior’s entourage, is a comic character on one level—he aspires to wearing motley—but he is also a deeply melancholy man whose sadness is only hinted at here.

All of the major roles in As You Like It are challenging for student actors and I don’t want to discourage anybody by saying that the results are hit and miss. Marguerite Hanna, who is playing Rosalind, tends to illustrate what she’s saying and to telegraph when something is supposed to be funny. And Anna Blackett, who takes on the roles of both Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, resorts to broad strokes as she tries to embody patriarchal authority.

But three young performers ace it. All three have the confidence to deliver unadorned performances, to simply say their lines and mean them. From the moment he opens his mouth, William Edward is completely credible as the love-struck Orlando. This kind of emotional clarity and consistency is a huge accomplishment. Similarly, Michelle Morris makes a charmingly grounded yet playful Celia. And in a tricky turn, Aidan Drummond brings subtle comic spin to the role of Silvius, a hapless shepherd.

Scholar’s As You Like It is a bumpy ride. It ends multiple times. And one of the major conventions, turning the courtier Amiens into drag queen balladeer, mostly feels like dated “daring”. But other elements are transcendent. In a viscerally poetic device, Scholar emphasizes the passing of the seasons: actors toss fall leaves, snowflakes, and spring flowers into the air. And that drag queen presides over a multiple wedding that is so innocently ecstatic it feels like a wet dream.

Did I like this As You Like It? Sometimes not so much, but mostly yes.

AS YOU LIKE IT By William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Scholar Jr. A Studio 58 production at Studio 58 on Saturday, September 30. Continues until October 15.

Get your tickets here.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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