Next week at UNC Greensboro, the Department of Theatre is putting on a production of “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare. However, this production is not like the one that would have been performed in Elizabethan England. Instead, this production is a “folk-rock” musical adaptation of the classic play. In preparation to go see this show, I took the liberty of reading the original play and then watched a production of the play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2019. Reading the play was an interesting experience as I could follow the storyline but I felt that I was missing a few of the key elements when it came to the characters. This was no fault in the writing, mind you, but a fault in my lack of reading Shakespeare in recent years. However, I was still able to pick up on who was who and what was happening at a given time, and I was able to get the general atmosphere of the play.
“As You Like It” has a similar whimsical feel to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as it integrates familiar characters and settings from Celtic and English folklore. This, perhaps, is one of the most important factors for this article. Shakespeare, for most of his plays, took from stories that had already existed and, in colloquial terms, “made them better.” “As You Like It”’s themes and some story elements have been seen within other stories in Shakespeare’s time as well as in stories of the past. These stories would have been common knowledge, as Shakespeare explored making his plays popular amongst the audiences. For example, a man named Thomas Lodge had written a play titled “Rosalynde,” which Shakespeare then adapted into his own play. The story and plot were fairly the same, but with different mechanics and characters. Even the title of the play for “As You Like It” is thought to have been taken from Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” with the line “For as you liketh, it suffiseth me.” But taking from these other sources does not remove any merit from Shakespeare’s works. The fact that his plays do take from cultural foundations is probably the most important aspect of his plays and a reason why they continue to remain popular today.
Shakespeare carries on the legacy and tradition of storytellers before him, which writers and audiences continue to use and explore today. In Ancient Greece, almost every play we still have from the age of Greek Tragedy falls in the epic story of Greek myth and therefore they all come from one necessary and similar source. This is important to reflect on as the stories we have today all came from these classic stories that go back generations, even before Shakespeare. Shakespeare just made them better and more popular.
Building off of this, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of “As You Like It” in 2019 took Shakespeare’s work to a whole other level. There was music, audience interaction, women in the play (in Shakespeare’s time, women could not perform), a diverse cast (in Shakespeare’s time they all would have been white, English men), and even advanced puppetry. In the original play, there is a character named Silvius, a man, who falls in love with a woman named Phoebe. Phoebe is in love with another character, but she ends up settling for Silvius. In the performance by RSC, Silvius is now a woman named Silvia who still chases after the woman, Phoebe. This is beyond anything that Shakespeare could have even imagined happening in his productions, even though there seems to be homosexuality built into the very fabric of the play.
As mentioned before, in Shakespeare’s time only men could perform. In “As You Like It,” one of the female characters (played by a man) has to dress as a man to hide herself away from those who might know her. She then kisses a man, the one she loves, but he does not know it is really her, since she is trying to pretend to be a manly friend and help him have practice in getting the eventual girl he loves, which is really her. Therefore, in Shakespeare’s original performance, the men would have literally been kissing each other on stage or having some sort of romantic interactions back and forth. Therefore, even in Shakespeare’s time, there were in fact breakthroughs, but they were not accepted like they are now. But the importance of the RSC’s substitution of Silvius with Silvia shows how Shakespeare’s play is still significant today and can reflect on the cultural background of the world as it is today. Even then, because Shakespeare’s works are based on prior works, going all the way back to the Greeks and Romans (e.g. “Julius Caesar,” “Titus Andronicus”), his work shows that stories from all throughout human history are still relevant in the world we live in today. The musical adaptation that is being performed at UNC Greensboro is taking all of this one step further. The production is using folk-rock and slimming a two and a half hour play down by one hour, creating a whole new take on the story. Stories like this are a vein in the body of human history and will continue until humans die off. These stories will continue to live with us and they continue to be relevant in our society today.
Come out and see “A Musical Adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’” being performed by the UNCG School of Theatre at Taylor Theatre, 406 Tate St., Greensboro, NC 27412 September 24 – 25 at 7:30 pm, September 26 at 2:00 pm, September 29, October 1, and October 2 at 7:30 pm and on-demand streaming October 14-16. You can call the box office or order tickets online.