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All the world’s a stage. Even Bella Vista Farm, apparently. And what better bucolic setting than 20 hectares of not entirely uninterrupted rural landscape, in the garden shire, for Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy?

The strangely named Sport For Jove Theatre Company has embarked on an ambitious programme of Shakespeare, including Sydney Hills Shakespeare In The Park, to be followed by The Leura Shakespeare Festival, at spectacular Everglades Gardens. If either location seems too far-flung, the show goes one the road again and moves to Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, come the ides of March, or thereabouts.

In the former, Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It are rotated, with some overlap of cast. (Can you imagine keeping two of the bard’s plays in your head, at once?! Yikes!)

As You Like It vies and ties (temporally, too) with Much Ado About Bugger All and Twelfth Night, in the canon. Their fluffy titles make them, on the one had, as disposable as, say, B-grade Jennifer Aniston romcoms, if that is the way in which one chooses to regard them. Take it as you like it. Or leave it, if you prefer. This was Shakespeare as entertainer, as much as anything; not the great tragedian who prevailed later. It was as if he set out to conquer the lighter genre, before delving deeper.

As You Like It is a product of its time inasmuch as it is probably the most pointedly satirical with regard to literary fashion back in the day: specifically, the penchant for pastoral romance; not sheep-shagging, exactly, but love stories set in proximity to shepherds and such. Of course, Bill’s satire was not easily constrained, so we also see him incising the vogue for being melancholic (now, I s’pose, it might be metrosexual), for example. And he certainly, among many other things, directly challenged the probability of perpetuity in love and marriage, with profound cynicism worn on his sleeve; or, at least, spilling from his quilling. Even the dialectic set-up in the duality of settings (the court of Duke Frederick, versus the idyll of the Forest Of Arden) echoes the fantasy of seachange in our own time.

As Internet Shakespeare Editions puts it: “Shakespeare’s vision here is of contrasting and antithetical worlds. One of harsh reality, political maneuvering, legal shystering and commercial competition. The other, a restorative world of sylvan harmony, green landscapes, idealized family relationships and poetic imagination, capable of enabling sympathetic figures to redress social inequalities and return at last to a rejuvenated court.” It wasn’t the first time Shakespeare tackled the theme: think Love’s Labours Lost, The Two Gentleman Of Verona, et al. But the ‘envious court’ of Duke Freddy, it seems to me, still prevails in Canberra, Washington, and many a corporate or other workplace, to say nothing of our consumerist socioeconomic milieu.

This As You Like It takes advantage of the scope of locations on the farm: the first act taking place in front of a stately homestead; the second, in a rustic barn; the third, under huge figs and the stars, on the lawn.

These particular men and women aren’t merely players; a number are veritable stars themselves, the most glaringly obvious among them being Lizzie Schebesta, as Rosalind. Virtually every word she uttered, from the very first, even in competition with a chorus of fruit bats, the drone of a plane, red-cordialised kids and sundry other noises, was clarion-clear, booming to the blankets at the back. Otherwise, too, her character was wrought with great dexterity, every expression and gesture carefully measured, without seeming at all contrived.

Practically her equal is Eloise Winestock, as Celia. She, like her stage cousin, was almost all one could hope for in the role. Yet these two were far from unrivalled in the performance stakes: Christopher Stalley showing great verve and maturity as an actor in his youthful guise as Orlando; Barry French, at his best, as long-suffering servant, Adam; Christopher Tomkinson was a standout, both as the Duke and Charles, the wrestler (even if the decision to create him in the stereotypically macho image of a hard-drinking Russian, ‘though comical, was a little out there); James Lugton, as the melancholy, bitter and twisted forest cynic, who seems to think he sees the wood through the trees, seems at the peak of his powers, with a commanding presence; Troy Carlson, as the fool, and despite a slow start, whooped it up. All the other actors were at least creditable: it’s the invigorated performances of their peers that set them a little apart, above and beyond.

Another laudable aspect of this production is the music, musicians and singers: Dom Mercer; Pip Dracakis; Jess Clay; Sally Andrews; Drew and Naomi Livingston. The last proved an extraordinary vocalist and the rest expert and enthusiastic instrumentalists. The Livingstons also assume credit for the very impressive, engaging score and musical direction, confirming artistic director Damien Ryan’s decisions to stage a full-blown wrestling scene, as well as incorporate and feature musical interludes are bold, successful ones. Choreography (and movement overall) was incredibly fluid and precise, with Schebesta, Winestock and (N.) Livingston collaborating to effect the dance.

All in all, this was, and is, notwithstanding a somewhat lacklustrous first act, a production of near-superlative quality, which makes the most of what is, arguably, the most controversial of all the Bard’s plays. Still, I plump for it being one of the crowning achievements of Shakespearean romantic comedy, the When Harry Met Sally of its day. This version especially.

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Curtain Call rating: A

The details: The Sydney Hills Shakespeare in the Park 2010 festival has six more performances until December 30. Tickets through FoxTix.

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