Directed by Nicholas Barter and performed by the Shanghai Theatre Academy, As You Like It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s play set in 1920s China. The play celebrates the 400th anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Chinese playwright Tang Xianu, continuing the poets’ legacies. By focusing on the changes in China as it entered the 20th Century, and how these influenced clothes, music and tradition, Barter emphasises the themes of change in the play.
Rosalind, the daughter of the banished Duke Senior, is removed from the Chinese Court by her uncle Duke Frederick. At the same time the young gentleman Orlando, who she is in love with, is forced to leave his home too. Rosalind takes refuge in the Forest of Arden, along with her cousin Celia and court jester Touchstone, donning a male disguise to keep the three of them safe. When she sees Orlando in the forest, Rosalind decides to establish whether or not his love for her is true by appearing to him in her male attire. This leads to hilarious encounters of mistaken identity and the union of many couples in the end.
While the love between Rosalind and Orlando is the central story of As You Like It, this adaptation really emphasises the loving relationship between cousins Rosalind and Celia. The two are inseparable, playfully roaming the stage together. The performers beautifully present the love between the two girls with warmth and sincerity. The humour of the piece shines through in particular with the physical comedy of the characters. Touchstone’s clownish appearance is entertaining, and he receives the most laughs from the audience. Unfortunately, the comedy of his speech is somewhat lost in translation due to the mismatched surtitles, and the non-Mandarin speaking members of the audience can miss the cultural relevance of the jokes. But the physicality of the character’s humour transcends the language barrier, which heightens the comedy of Touchstone.
In cross-cultural adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, it is always fascinating to uncover what elements companies attempt to focus on and how this affects the understanding of their culture and interpretation. For the students of Shanghai Theatre Academy, the emphasis is on the humour in the play, but also the strong female friendship displayed in it, which highlights the empowering changes in early 20th Century China.