"As You Like It," the second installment of public television's ambitious "The Shakespeare Plays" is a midwinter night's dream.
Tonight's production moves "The Shakespeare Plays" outside, away from the cold studio that constricted "Julius Caesar" two weeks ago and into the sunny storybook environs of the woods and meadows surrounding Glamis Castle, Scotland.
The greens were very green at Lamis last summer, and this colorful production of "As You Like It" is escapist entertainment at its most sublime. It airs tonight at 8 on Channel 26 and other pubilic TV stations.
For this comedy, Shakespeare followed an assortment of characters who were in political hot water into exile in an idyllic forest. There, love is the principal preoccupation.
"As You Like It" would have been a perfect opener for the Shakespeare series on Valentine's Day. Seldom has romantic love been examined from as many angles, in such exquisite words, as it is in Shakespeare's script, and seldom has it been expressed with as much zip and zest as it is by the cast of Basil Coleman's production for the BBC.
Fortunately, the play is not just a gooey valentine. The resident cynics of the Forest of Arden undercut the mooniest sentiments, and the perils that face the lovers in the first part of the play make for stirring adventure.
Given the gorgeous surroundings, it would have been easy for Coleman to slight these harder aspects of the play and simply enjoy the scenery. But he knew he wasn't directing a travelogue. He found one striking composition after another to highlight the drama instead of the countryside.
And his actors are as skilled at villainous looks, philosophical musing and grumpy gloom as they are at lovelorn gazes. Not that the gazes are anything to dismiss: Helen Mirren and Brian Stirner as leading lovers Rosalind and Orlando gaze up a storm. In the scenes where Rosalind, disguised as a boy, flirts with her unwitting sweetheart, the sexual tension in keen and cutting.
Mirren was last seen on American television in Harold Pinter's "The Collection," and she is an actress of extraordinary versatility. She is ably abetted here by Angharad Rees (Demelza on "Poldark") as best friend Celia. As Orlando, Stirner is not quite Mirren's match, physically, but his boyish charm is considerable.
Richard Pasco, who played Brutus on the "Julius Caesar" that opened "The Shakespeare Plays" in America, is back as Jaques, looking even more world-weary than ever and holding high the banner of melancholy that prevents the play from going soft and squeamish. Also assisting in this effort are Clive Francis and Richard Easton as a couple of nifty vilains, Arthur Hewlett as old Adam and Maynard Williams and Victoria Plucknett as the pair of low-life lovers.
Only on or two of the six "Shakespeare Plays" each season will be shot on location. It's too bad the whole canon can't move to the great outdoors, if "As You Like It" is any indication. Shakespeare has never looked better.