--Theatre Critic Annamaree Sugai reviews Shakesperare Company's As You Like It--

Shakespeare's As You Like It has always been a play that lends itself well to transformation; exactly as the leading figures transform themselves in gender and role. "All the world's a stage and one man in his life plays many parts" is one of the most famous lines from the play after all. Years ago, George Bernard Shaw dubbed the play 'As You Like It', emphasising you to suggest this was a play written primarily for the public's enjoyment not the writers. This was a play therefore that could be interpreted in a million ways.

And so it has been. But never before like this.This time, in perhaps the most creative and unique context of all, Kazumi Shimodate and his cast have created a timeless and comic yet completely Japanese world within the structure and framework of a story originally 16th centuy European. The exchange of metaphor and memorabilia for all that is quintissentally Japanese is the resounding and powerful visual that remains with you long after the final, magical festival scene. Shakespeare himself would have been mesmerised.

Here, the fictional Ardenne forest setting for the play -originally supposed to be in France- becomes Narugo onsen in Tohoku, North Japan. Here, guests come and stay a while in tatami rooms with massage and hot spa facilities:men and women wear summer yukata ; tsukemono are served freely throughout, and Orlando's love poems are not carved on trees but sent via kami-hikoki, carried through the Tohoku humid summer air to the sound of cicadas chirping.

For all it's 'Japaneseness', and flexibility taken with timeline and content order, the production retains a distinctly Shakespearean flavor. The minmal stage set, the look back in time, the often lewd and always robust energy of script and performance; the actors' themselves so theatrical in their staged exits and entrances and their changing expressions, movements and panache. Watching the actors flexibility reminded me of nendo-(plasticine) the soft Japanese clay children shape and mould many times into shapes and figures, always producing something unique and often unexpected.

There are far too many memorable and worthy moments and touches in this production to comment on all, and besides to do so would be to remove some of the pleasure found in the rollercoaster of constant visual and auditory surprises -but mention must be given to two outstanding overall features in this production. The first is Shimodate's ability to yet again convert a Shakespeare play, this time a comedy, into something so accessible, amusing and enigmatic to Japanese and Western audiences alike. The second, is the truly outstanding performance and energy of the cast and how, more than ever, each member of the company has developed so sophisticated an interpretation of their roles, never stumbling, never failing to pitch perfect the innuendo and timing that defines good comedy and entertainment in any culture.