As You Like It was, most likely, one of the first plays performed at the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, finished building this new, bigger home in 1599 on the South Bank of the Thames.
In quick succession, Shakespeare would write the “high comedies”: Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night (or What You Will). Among the most beloved plays in Shakespeare’s canon, these works are bigger, bolder, more theatrical than what came before. They are Shakespeare’s vision of a new kind of play, for a new kind of theatre, bigger works designed for a bigger stage.
Along with some of Shakespeare’s most famous poetry, all feature music. Think of Twelfth Night’s opening lines, “If music be the food of love, play on.” In Much Ado, characters sing snatches of “Light o’ Love,” an actual popular tune from the Elizabethan era. They are also more romantic than what came before. Much Ado About Nothing introduces the “will they or won’t they” dynamic characteristic of subsequent romantic comedies.
As You Like It was the first of these comedies, and also the one that casts the widest net. The bulk of the action occurs in the Forest of Arden. A fantastical pastoral landscape, its name alludes to paradises biblical, classical, and personal. After all, Arcadia plus Eden equals Arden, and Arden was also the maiden name of Shakespeare’s mother. Over time, Shakespeare’s forest has come to stand in for a utopian image of Britain itself. It is a place where the heart’s desire translates from intention into action, one where all people can sway to the better angels of their nature.
This production of As You Like It was conceived by Daryl Cloran and the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival of Vancouver. It arrives at a new approach to the play so obvious you wonder why it hasn’t been tried before. Mashing up the Bard with The Beatles, Cloran and co. trade in Shakespeare’s sun-dappled Arden for swinging 60s London, Shakespearean high comedy for the highs of Beatlemania.
Shakespeare’s poetic evocations of “All the world’s a stage,” with “all the men and women merely players,” alternate with the similarly utopian visions of Lennon-McCartney, in which people from across the universe experience raptures of togetherness, peace, and love. The melancholy Jaques grooves out to guitars gently weeping and sings of fools on the hill. The exiled Duke Senior shouts, “Help! I need somebody!” Orlando and Rosalind share the oohs and la la las of the moptops’ romantic songbook.
The combination illuminates a central aspect of Shakespearean high comedy. The action of these plays is not so much what does happen as what could happen—to any of us. These are fantasy landscapes ruled under the sign of the hypothetical: what you will, as you like, what you make much ado about. As the kids say these days, it’s a vibe. Or, as one of Britain’s great poets once wrote, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”