*. One of the things that I think everybody knows about Shakespeare is that when his plays were first produced the female roles were all played by men, or boys. This has always invited a bit of head spinning when watching plays like As You Like It or Twelfth Night where one of the main characters is a woman who disguises herself as a man. So audiences were watching a man disguised as a woman pretending to be a man.
*. This version of As You Like It promises “Shakespeare like never before” but it’s really just Shakespeare with an all-male cast, which isn’t being original so much as originalist. There have been celebrated (and not-so celebrated) productions of this play with an all-male cast for quite a while in our own time, at least on stage. We may have moved the Forest of Arden to Death Valley here, but having the players all be men isn’t breaking any new ground.
*. Of course, gender politics in the twenty-first century are a little different than they were in the English Renaissance. So, for starters, an all-male Shakespeare today is inevitably going to be a gay Shakespeare. Now I don’t think this movie plays the gay angle up, at least on the level of what Derek Jarman would have done with it, but at the same time it’s obviously there in a way that goes beyond just crossdressing some of the cast. That’s immediately indicated by the epigraphs from Christopher Marlowe, “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools,” and the Village People: “Go West!”
*. I’ve seen crossdressed Shakespeare on stage before. These are productions where the male parts are played by women and the female parts by men. I’ve always found these to be only half successful, in that I have no trouble buying a female Macbeth or Lear in uniform or corporate attire, but as soon as a guy comes out on stage wearing a dress it’s pretty much game over. Is that prejudice on my part? Probably. And attitudes do seem to be changing. But it still registers as silly in a way that hurts the play. Maybe in a hundred years we’ll look at these things differently. If anyone is still doing Shakespeare in the 2100s, which I doubt.
*. So I think they make a good choice kicking things off here introducing us to Rosalind (Jordan Grant) and Celia (Joseph Haro), two young men wearing dresses, as soon as the play opens (there’s an introductory chorus-like address that gives us a bit of background info, but the first proper scene is Act 1 Scene 2 in the play). Best to get the surprise factor out of the way as quickly as possible. After this we’re only going to be shocked by the sight of the country wench Audrey appearing as a barrel-chested dude with a bushy moustache and a one-piece swimsuit. But Audrey is a comic figure anyway and I did think Haro made an attractive girl.
*. This is a very low-budget effort. I don’t think many people have seen or even heard of it. The DVD didn’t even have a menu much less scene selection! I know nothing of the director, Carlyle Stewart, or any of the cast aside from a couple of veterans in supporting parts (Graham Greene as Corin and Tom Bower as Jaques). But, to my surprise, it’s actually not bad.
*. Some of the actors were hard to warm to. They even seemed angry for no apparent reason. Grant as Rosalind and Stephen Ellis as Touchstone stand out in this regard. And did we need Orlando beating Charles by throwing sand in his face and kicking him in the nuts? To this I would add that the whole thing feels clunky in its pacing (the transition shots are heavy beats) and dramatically flat. Perhaps more music would have helped. As You Like It is a frothy play that skips and dances, a quality that I’ve only found the 1936 version really captures.
*. I won’t deny that I had very low expectations going into this one, and they were happily surpassed. For a low-budget indie it has an interesting spin and is competently put forward in most departments. The cuts — like some of the wordplay with Touchstone, the hedge-priest Sir Oliver Martext, and the encounter with a lion (here a gunfight) — are sensible, and indeed have become routine. That said, it’s a niche film that mainly just keeps its head above water and is unlikely to appeal to anyone except the Shakespeare curious.