May 24, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
As You Like It (CtrlAltRepeat) @ YouTube
‘I like this place / And willingly could waste my time in it.’ Celia’s line in As You Like It rings interestingly in the middle of a pandemic, a momentary suggestion of peace and satisfaction in the idea of wasting time. Time is a luxury, even a superfluity, when so many in the theatre industry are facing unemployment and uncertainty about the future. The idea of a forest where there is no clock, where time can be ‘wasted’ with a feeling of safety, has an allure that gives CtrlAltRepeat’s As You Like It, directed by Rachel Waring, a strong hook.
In an inventive opening sequence, this Zoom production begins with a montage of pre-recorded and stock footage setting this As You Like It within the gaming industry. Duke Frederick (Adam Blake) has staged a coup to take over Court Games, ousting founding CEO Duke Senior (Andrew Caley) and announcing their new immersive social media platform experience, ARDEN, a forest environment that doesn’t tell you how to play it, but responds to what you bring into it. It’s a fascinating and intelligent reimagining of Shakespeare’s forest, which indeed seems to be protean according to the viewpoint of each person who enters it. Further, in allowing players to create avatars as they enter the forest, it offers an ideal medium for the play’s interest in identity creation, literally allowing Rosalind (Joanna Brown) and Celia (Rebekah Finch) to reinvent themselves as they enter the game.
The corporate framing also sets up the conflict between the real world, human stakes of managing a potentially lucrative product, and the in-world stakes of killing deer and forming relationships within a world that is imaginary but important to its players. On the outside, Oliver (David Alwyn) incorporates the role of Charles, becoming an employee of Court Games who challenges newcomers to beat him for the reward of a job with the company – in a fun and too-rare bit of game footage, Orlando (Sid Phoenix) and Oliver play Sonic V Mario, and Oliver throws an enormous physical fit when he loses, his camera thankfully muting as he swears blue murder at the screen, while Duke Frederick looks on from a different screen over a glass of wine.
The concept has rather more potential than is able to be fully realised in a low-budget production. A particularly cool idea imagines Touchstone as a hacker – we get some screens of text showing him entering the back door of the system, with lots of injokes (warnings of ‘Motleyware’ and an endless litany of the word ‘pancakes’ with a single ‘mustard’ in the middle). And while ARDEN is made up of stock footage from any number of video games, the idea of avatar creation and the disguise of Rosalind as Ganymede is especially rich. But inevitably, we don’t get to see the game itself. Instead, we are flies on the wall for a combination of Zoom calls and shots of live players, watching them with console handsets in their hands, controlling something unseen while talking on their headsets to other players.
The production is thus, for quite a lot of its length, a little dull. The cast are uniformly strong, but the game conceit anchors them to their chairs with controllers in their hands, their physical actions – tapping at their controllers – divorced from their words. There’s disappointingly little use of the environments within which we can see the various players, their eyes fixed on the screens where their avatars are interacting (a rare exception is Orlando going to his bedroom window to shout his ‘If this be so’ up towards the moon). There are some fun jokes – seeing Celia surrounded by empty pizza boxes as she listens to Rosalind and Orlando flirt over the shared audio is amusing – but it feels like they’re doing the play while doing something else. The production comes alive when characters break away from the game to fully engage with the person they’re talking to, as when Silvius (Edward Cartwright) calls Phebe (Olivia Caley) from his garden to vow his love, or when Rosalind and Celia talk directly to one another about Rosalind’s love for Orlando. But too often, we’re watching characters merely lounge on their beds playing an unseen game as they chat to one another, wasting time. It’s relatable, especially in the current climate, but it’s not dramatically compelling.
There are lots of fun touches throughout. Celia, in particular, is extra – first introduced riding a scooter around her massive pad, swooning dramatically to try and get Rosalind’s attention when she’s not paying attention to the Zoom call, and finally giving up entirely on her efforts to dress up and getting into a Pikachu onesie. Amiens (Anna Sambrooks) is a recording artist (Court Games’ resident composer) who gets a number of lovely set-pieces. Orlando’s microphone is muted when he approaches the princesses, a great way of capturing his awkwardness. And the montage of game footage that combines to illustrate Oliver’s story of encountering the snake and lion in the forest is hilarious, a fun and irreverent intermingling of Shakespeare and classic videogame that it would have been lovely to see much more of throughout the production.
The best moments are those of silence. When Oliver and Celia meet in the forest, at the end of their scene, they start sending each other DMs – we’re not privy to them, but we see the two of them laugh in turn, falling in love – a great sense of what is developing in the gameworld outwith the main text. At other moments, while the swapping of scenes and cameras sometimes creates a bit of a lag, it allows us to see characters waiting and reacting, which particularly benefits Orlando during his periods of tension; and when he gets a phone message about Adam (which sounds like news of death at first, though his ‘let me know if anything changes’ suggests not) ends the first half on a surprisingly sober note.
The final scene works nicely. One of the interesting things this production shows is how much of As You Like It is structured around scenes with two or three people, and the sudden switch to lots of screens feels like a nice pay-off to the production as the various plotlines are brought together. Rosalind and Celia’s screens appear as empty, with Rosalind speaking in voice over as she reminds everyone – including Orlando and Oliver, now in wedding suits – what they have promised. And when Rosalind and Celia’s screens come back on, the reactions are wonderful – shock, surprise, joy, relief. It’s the most effective part of the production by a long way, and not because all of the handheld controllers have been long since dispensed with, and everyone is looking directly at one another. And as Amiens sings a final song, the cast start celebrating – Rosalind goes outside for a walk, Duke Frederick grabs his dog, Corin brings his mum(?) into shot, and there’s a moment of shared joy, even in separation.