‘It was very powerful, very exciting to play. Like skipping on water.’

As You Like It

An Actor’s Perspective

By Dennis Abrams


We’ve looked at As You Like It from every conceivable angle.  Except for one.  In the book Shakespeare on Stage:  Thirteen Leading Actors on Thirteen Key Roles, actress Rebecca Hall (daughter of legendary theater director Peter Hall, and perhaps best known in the US for her role in Woody Allen’s Vicki Christina Barcelona), discusses the challenges of bring the role of Rosalind to life in an interview with the book’s author, Julian Curry.  A few highlights:

There were lots of wonderful things written about your performance, but it doesn’t sound like the sunniest Rosalind.  ‘Downcast’ was a word used.

I don’t know whether she was downcast…

Somebody else said ‘…she brings out a profound sadness in the character as if her inability to declare her love was a source of spiritual frustration.’

Yes, I think that’s probably accurate.   It was clear to me from the first reading that this is not someone who is easy with love.  I don’t think anyone really is, and that’s ultimately what Shakespeare’s doing.  He’s writing a play about many different aspect of love.  Falling in love is a dangerous business, with all sorts of possibilities of rejection.  The backdrop to hall as you like it 1Rosalind’s story is that she’s been brought up in a horrible court with her evil uncle, her father’s been banished, she’s alienated, she’s got no paternal guidance.  I think she’s very fragile and vulnerable, and desperately wants to love, is open to it.  For people with those defence mechanisms and problems, I think when they do fall in love it can be all the more beautiful and joyful because of the hardship that comes with it.

One of the main things about Rosalind is that for much of the play she’s disguised as a boy, which is very strong dramatically.

Yes, especially as she would have been played by a boy in the first place.

The chemistry of it is fascinating.  Can you say what the disguise did for you?

Well, it’s a mask, isn’t it?  I found it a liberation.  As soon as she starts being a boy she’s much more herself.  She feels more at ease with herself, and able to say what she’s feeling and what she’s thinking.  But it’s less, I think, about performing a boy and more about daring to be yourself to the outside world, with the protective mechanism that you’re not really yourself.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it.

Yeah, it’s a total paradox.  But for me it was crucial not to do a lot of ‘Oh, here I am, I’m a boy, swagger, swatter,’ slapping my thigh and doing all that.  I just played it straight in boy’s clothes.  In doing that you embrace a certain amount of ambiguity about her.  I think there’s something genderless about Rosalind.  She has aspects of femininity and she has aspects of masculinity.  And I thought the ambiguity would work better if I stopped worrying about playing one or the other and just delivered the truth of the text.

Rosalind really is an actor, isn’t she – she flies when she’s playing a part.  Did you find that fun?

Yes, I did, I did, there’s no question about it.  The first scene with Orlando in the forest [3.2) where she confronts him and really goes for it, was such a joyous scene to play. She just runs with it, the adrenalin is up in your throat because the stakes are so high, she has so much fun and she gets away with it.  And she can hold court, she really can.  But I think a lot of it comes almost as a surprise to her.  It tumbles out of her mouth before she knows what she’s doing.  I don’t she’s aware that she’s a natural born actor.  To me there’s something almost self-effacing in her nature. And again it’s paradoxical.  I found the key to this in the epilogue.  She just walks down and says ‘Okay, I know you don’t need to hear this.  I won’t be much good as an epilogue, and maybe you didn’t like this play, or maybe you did…’  Apologies, apologies.  And I thought that actually runs all the way through:  ‘I don’t know if I’m any good at this.  Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.  Are you going to accept me?  It’s this constant downplaying, a kind of modesty, I suppose.

It’s been suggested that the relationship between her and Orlando is often more like master and pupil than a couple of equals.  Did it feel like that to you?

No, it didn’t.  I think she’s learning as well, not so much from him as from the whole set-up.  You have to bear in mind that when the fall in love it’s this crazy, I guess sexual, attraction that just goes bam.  They’ve hardly spoken a word to each other, they don’t know each other.  So I think it’s less ‘I’m going to tell you how to love me,’ and more ‘Let’s find out if we can love each other, is it possible, and how are we going to do it?’  And also ‘Will you love me for me?’  I think that’s actually what’s going on.  Earlier on you read that quote about sadness.  Maybe that’s how it would come across, as I was playing someone who was vulnerable.  But I don’t believe she’s sad in her relation to love, I think she’s just uncannily realistic.  She’s got an innate wisdom which takes her beyond being a starry-eyed young girl, almost as if she becomes Shakespeare’s voice.  She’s constantly telling people to cut out any trace of hyperbole.  She says, ‘Don’t laugh too much,’ or to Jaques ‘Don’t be so sad.’  And she really tells Orlando off when he makes overblown declarations that don’t make any sense to her, because in her mind ‘We met, but you don’t know me yet.  You can’t make these grand statements.  If you are going to love me, you have to accept me for who I am.  I haven’t grown up yet, but I could potentially be a basket case.’  I could be:

more clamorous than a parrot against rain; more new-fangled than an ape;

more giddy in my desires than a monkey.  I will weep for nothing, like Diana

in the fountain, and I will do that when you are disposed to be merry.  I will

laugh like a hyena, and that when thou are inclined to sleep.

He then says…

‘But will my Rosalind do so?’

And you say…

‘By my life, she will do as I do.’

Which is a funny line.

Yes.  Hilarious.

I don’t believe a word of it.

No.  I don’t think it’s true for a moment.

She’s making herself out to be perverse and coquettish, which Rosalind isn’t, surely?

Oh, no, I completely agree with you.  But there’s a grain of truth, in the sense that she’s saying, ‘I’m a little frightened about this whole set-up. Would you still love me if I was like this?  Would you still love me if I did that?’

What happens after the duke’s exit [1.3]?

I sank down and pretty much gave up on life at that point.  ‘What am I going to do?  I’ve got nowhere else to go.  This is it for me.’  Celia’s very much the one that gets her back on her feet.  She insists:

n      I’ll go along with thee.

n      Why, whither shall we go?

n      To seek my uncle in the Forest of Arden.

Rosalind’s first reaction comes from her realism:  ‘Alas, what danger will it be to us,/Maids as we are, to travel forth so far! I didn’t play it scared so much as ‘That’s a ludicrous idea.  We’d be robbed and raped and killed.:  ‘Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.’  Then Celia shifted into a different gear and said, half-jokingly, ‘You’re right.  Okay.  I’ve got a funny idea:’

I’ll put myself in poor and mean attire,

And with a kind of umber smirch my face…

And we started having this nutty fantasy that was totally unrealistic, but the idea of it became very exciting.  It made us feel better.  ‘Ha-ha, wouldn’t it be funny if I dressed up like a man?’

Because that I am more than common tall…

We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,

As many other mannish cowards have

That do outface it with their semblances…

Thinking about her uncle with that bit of anger hanging over from the last scene, but still not really taking it seriously.  And then Celia says ‘What shall I call thee when thou art a man? – dead straight.  ‘I know we’re having a laugh here…but why not?’

What made you choose ‘Ganymede?’

The reality of the plan was emerging slowly, but Rosalind’s still partly in the game.  So she goes ‘Well, I want the best possible name there is,’ so:

I’ll have no worse a name than Jove’s own page,

And therefore look you call me Ganymede.

And it’s funny because of the gender, and the mixture of male and female:  ‘But what will you be call’d?’  And they’re both scoping each other out.  ‘Are you serious?’ ‘Are you serious?’ That’s how we played it.  ‘Well, I’m serious if you’re serious.’  ‘Well, I’m serious if you’re serious!’ And she says:

Something that hath a reference to my state,

No longer Celia, but Aliena.

Which isn’t funny, there’s no element of wit in her chosen name.  It says, ‘I’m going to alienate myself from everything I’m familiar with.  I’m deadly serious about this, so are you on board or are you not?  And then we’re totally serious for the rest of the scene.  And I say:

But, cousin, what if we assay’d to steal

The clownish fool out of your father’s court?

‘We can do this, but we need a man as well.’  So we played that scene as a game between two friends that had suddenly turned serious out of nowhere.

Into the forest.  You arrive in Arden and it’s winter [2.4]  What do you think you want?  Originally you talked about going to seek your father, but he hardly gets mentioned, does he?

I think a key to the part is that once she finds Orlando in Arden, there’s no reason for her to stay in disguise.  She could simply stop it all and reveal herself.  But I believe that if you find out why she doesn’t do that, then you unlock the character.  That’s really how we hall as you like it 2came to the conclusion that it’s not just about educating him, it’s about her finding out how she’s going to be as a woman, and perversely doing it through being a boy for a while.  Also she doesn’t want to give up the disguise because she really likes it; and she’s not yet sure how to be herself without it.

Act 3, Scene 2.  It’s summer, and you enter without Celia for the first time.  You’re reading these verses which are romantic tosh, but they’re all about you.  What do you make of them?

Well, she’s not stupid, old Rosalind.  She knows they’re romantic tosh.  But on the other hand, I took her to be incredibly excited by them.  And gobsmacked, and not quite believing whether it’s her or…

Another Rosalind?!

It’s ‘I can’t quite believe that someone would do this for me.’  Again, it’s the adrenalin, and the feeling in your stomach of ‘I can’t quite believe this,’ but the big grin on your face.  Totally flattering. If she comes on cynical and critical of the poems then there’s no pay-off when Touchstone starts mocking her.  I think she’s incredibly wise and realistic about life, but she’s not cynical in any way, shape or form. She’s open to things.  But of course it’s private, so I only allowed myself to show that bewilderment and joy to the audience.  As soon as Touchstone comes in and catches her, then the mask goes straight up again.  She laughs along with his joshing of the poems, and then tells him to shut up.  She shrugs it off – ‘I just found them on a tree, I don’t know what they’re doing…”


Orlando then arrives with Jaques, who says to him ‘Rosalind is your love’s name?’ Orlando says ‘Yes, just.’  And instead of leaping out and dragging him into the nearest shrubbery you embark on this long scene, telling Celia ‘I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under the habit play the knave with him.’  But of course if you didn’t do that the play would end a lot sooner, just as if Beckett had written the stage direction ‘Enter Godot.’

I think she’s still too insecure to go out and say ‘Hey, it’s me! Are you serious?’  It’s the paradox of love.  Even though he’s standing there saying ‘I’m in love with Rosalind,’ and putting his poems on trees, she’s still frightened of rejection at some level.  And I think that’s very true of romance in general.  It goes right back to the playground.  ‘Such-and-such has got a crush on you.’  ‘Well, go and tell him that I’ve got a crush on him too, and then you can come back and tell me…’  There’s the fear of young love, that it can’t possibly be easy.  She hasn’t got the balls to just go out there, so she does it through disguise instead.

The scene is amazing. She’s so inventive, it must feel like flying.

It is exactly like flying, it’s incredible.  When it was on form and everything took off, it would get big laughs.  There was the tension of running out there in disguise – will she get found out?  There was a very strong audience engagement, with people gasping.  It was very powerful, very exciting to play.  Like skipping on water.

When Orlando says ‘Where dwell you, pretty youth?,’ it’s like saying ‘Give me your phone number.’  He seems to be coming on to Ganymede, falling in love with this young man who is not you.  That’s a mixed blessing, isn’t it.

No, quite the opposite.  I think she wants him to fall in love with her as the boy, oddly, because it is her.  Yes, she’s playing the part, but it’s very much her personality.  I think what scares her is him falling in love with his image of Rosalind, this fantasy Rosalind that he met for two seconds and has been writing poems about.  She wants to be sure that he is falling in love with the real Rosalind.

The real Rosalind who is…the pretend Rosalind.

Well, the real Rosalind who’s pretending to be a boy.  That’s the only relationship they have.  Every other relationship he has with Rosalind is in his mind.  It’s hyperbolized and romanticized, which in her eyes is wrong and terrifying because she might disappoint him.

It’s a wonderful mix.  She ups the ante all the time, doesn’t she?  ‘There is a man haunts the forest that abuses our young plants with carving ‘Rosalind’ on their barks.’  Then she goes on:  ‘You’re not in love, you don’t have any of the symptoms of a lover.’

It’s very tongue-in-cheek.  There are different things going on.  Initially she’s testing him with ‘There is none of my uncle’s marks upon you.  He taught me how to know a man in love, in which case of rushes I am sure you are not a prisoner.’  (‘Come on, show me that you are!’)  Orlando asks ‘What were his marks?’  Then – this was very fun, inventive – I started moving round him, and touching his face.  It was quite sexy.  I went up to him and stroked his face very slowly on ‘A lean cheek, which you have not…,’ and there was a little crackly moment which we let hang.  And then I was darting all around him, doing this and doing that…I picked at his shoe, and I tipped his hat, it was very energetic.  And yes, initially wanting to know whether he’s really in love, but also keeping on talking because of the sexual tension.  I’m listing all the symptoms of neglect that show a real lover, and end up ‘But you are no such man.  You are rather point-device in your accoutrements, as loving yourself than being the lover of any other.’  He got quite angry with me at this point because I’d gone so over the top, and shouted ‘Fair youth, I would I could make thee believe I love.’  I pulled it right back, and just went ‘Me believe it? You may as soon make her that you love believe it –‘ and suddenly became very serious:

…which I warrant, she is apter to do than to confess she does…But, in

good sooth, are you he that hangs the verses on the trees, wherein Rosalind

is so admired?


I swear to thee, youth, by the white hand of Rosalind, I am that he, that

unfortunate he.

And now here we come to the absolute crux of the scene, that it’s all been building to:  ‘But are you so much in love that your rhymes speak?’  She can’t quite believe that he is going to say yes, but he answers her better than she can possibly imagine:  ‘Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much.’  And it floors her.  It absolutely floors her.  And she realizes that she’s utterly in love too.  The whole thing is terrifying.  This next speech is so beautiful and I love it.  It’s almost my favourite:

Love is merely a madness, and I tell you deserves as well a dark house and

a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punished and

cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too.

It was beautifully minor-key and reflective, the way you just said that.

She suddenly has this incredible lucidity about love.  It’s sort of rueful.  I suppose it’s that quality of any really great comedian, of having an equal part sadness, because so much of the humor in life comes from the sadness of life.  She has that.  For every funny thing she says, there’s an undercurrent of reality as well, of the slightly frightening nature of it all. And she’s not being flippant, she really does think love is completely crazy – ‘I just stumbled into this man, and he’s putting poems up on trees, he says he loves me and I love him, and here I am in a boy’s outfit talking nonsense.’  It’s all crazy.  Love is mad.  And yet we run our lives by it.”

Act Four, Scene IThe most wonderful scene.  It’s all in prose, as was your previous scene with Orlando, whereas Silvius and Phoebe were all in verse.  People say that when the emotional level intensifies Shakespeare tends to write in verse, but this is the opposite.  It’s an exception to the rule.  What did Peter Hall say about that?  He’s a great man for these distinctions, isn’t he?

Oh yes, absolutely.  ‘Treat the verse like prose and the prose like prose.’  But actually most of this play’s in prose, which is interesting.

Regarding the end of the play…

She seems to turn into a magician-cum-deus-ex machina.

At the beginning of the scene [5.2] I haven’t quite got there yet.  I’m still half in game-playing mode.  But Orlando had his arm in a sling and was staring out front, and just says ‘Did you hear about Celia and Oliver?’  I stayed behind him and played the speech about them to his back.  ‘They looked, no sooner looked but they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed, no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason.’  And I realized during the course of the speech that it could and maybe should be that easy.  ‘It’s wonderful, why couldn’t we have been like that?’  There was almost a melancholy in this scene, a girding of loins, a letting go.  And then he lost patience and was quite snappy with me, and said, still out front, ‘I can live no longer by thinking.’  I take a deep breath, still looking at his back, and go ‘I will weary you then no longer with idle talking..’  I’m going to do it.  He sits down and I kneel, so there was again the sense of a proposal.  Then the speech ‘Know of me, then – for now I speak to some purpose – that I know you are a gentleman of good conceit…’ and she waffles a bit, trying to think what to do, and coming up with ‘Believe then, if you please, that I can do strange things.’  But as always with her, there are the little qualifications.  It’s all about ‘if,’ this speech – it really got to me how much this speech is about ‘if.’

hall as you like it 3So, jumping on to the last scene [5.4], the ‘strange things’ had nothing to do with magic, or Hymen descending from the clouds.

No.  None of it was magic, it was utter realism.

With you stage-managing:

Yes.  There was nothing spooky about ‘strange things.’  It was a matter of fact.  ‘I can do strange things, just trust me and I’ll do it…I can make it alright…’

Did the production have a happy ending?

Yes, very.  Ultimately, extremely happy.  It was tentative right up until the last moment, and there were some miserable bits.  Phoebe was utterly heartbroken when she finds out that I’m a girl and she’s going to have to marry Silvius whom she doesn’t love. So their union wasn’t exactly ecstatic, but it was comical.   She’s screaming, and then gets dragged into a big dance.  I remember spending the last ten minutes of the play running on and offstage, grabbing people and putting things on them. We deliberately didn’t opt for Rosalind suddenly appearing as a woman and everyone going ‘Gosh, isn’t she glamorous!’  I came back still wearing the coat and hat to reveal myself to Orlando, and indicated, ‘Yes, look, it’s been me all along.  Sorry.  How do you feel about that?’  Even then it wasn’t ‘Oh, great, let’s hug, I love you.’  He played a moment of ‘You mean you’ve been having me on all this time?  I don’t know how I feel about that.’  And I played a moment of ‘Please, please, I’m sorry.’  And it was resolved silently, except for those couple of lines at the end.  But then everyone gets together.  We did a very, very, joyful dance all around Corin, and everyone had garlands, and there were flowers…there was a lot of singing and whooping, and it was wonderfully exuberant. Finally they all stayed onstage, and I broke away to do the epilogue.

You played the epilogue as Rosalind?

Yeah, as Rosalind.


And with that…our exploration of As You Like It comes to an end.  What did you all think?  Favorite interpretations?  Moments?  For me, it was a joyous reading experience, and endlessly fascinating.  I suspect I’m going to be thinking about this one for a while.

My next post:  Sonnet #130, Thursday evening/Friday morning

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4 Responses to ‘It was very powerful, very exciting to play. Like skipping on water.’

  1. GGG says:

    Would the actress giving the epilogue leave out the “if I were a woman” line?

    I didn’t dislike the epilogue; it just didn’t really speak, for me, to the character of Rosalind even though it speaks to the dilemma of Rosalind: one gender pretending to be another. The epilogue is funny and clever. The last line made more sense to me when I read the note that “bid me farewell” meant “applaud me.”

    Very interesting to read the actress’s interpretation of the role and that they took out the “supernatural” aspect (Hymen). Although I googled Hymen and wikipedia has a story about Hymen disguising himself as a woman in order to win the hand of a lady. I don’t think there are any men dressing up as women (other than the actors playing women) in the plays–that would have been TOO subversive, I guess! (Hope I haven’t forgotten someone major.)

    As you like it….I did like it.

  2. Mahood says:

    This discussion from the actress’s perspective was invaluable: while many of the ideas discussed came up in previous posts, it was fascinating to read her thoughts and interpretations on a character she has ‘lived’ with for an extended period of time. Would love to read similar discussions in the future. It really does reveal yet more angles that I hadn’t thought about.

    A great way to end the analysis of a great play – Cheers, Dennis!

  3. luke says:

    Its appropriate time to make some plans for the future and its time to be happy. I have read this post and if I could I want to suggest you few interesting things or tips. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I want to read more things about it!

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