As You Like It actor Lucy Phelps talks about her experience of playing "Shakespeare's immortal heroine", Rosalind.

Writing about Rosalind is a daunting task, not least because she's been written about so much already. Her character and the performances of the actresses who have played her across history have been analysed and criticised in such great detail, what have I got to say about her that hasn't already been said? Who do I think Rosalind is?

I don't have all the answers yet, as I've only been living with Rose for about 12 weeks. Like a new flatmate or friend, we've got a lot more getting to know each other to do. For now, I'll begin with some key facts about the character and her story which have opened up interesting lines of enquiry in the rehearsal room.

The facts

1. Rosalind has a lot of lines in the play — the most lines of all Shakespeare's female characters, in fact.

A woman in a black dress holding a glass of champagne.
Lucy as Rosalind.
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

This means she's on stage a lot and that's very exciting because she's a woman taking up space. Nice one, William! It's proving an incredibly freeing experience to stand and speak as a female character who is not defined by nor judged on her appearance, but is given the space and words to display the wonders of her brain, the complexity of her emotional life and the beauty and power of her spirit. She is a woman on a voyage of self-discovery, exploring how to be in front of the eyes of the audience. Her words are her armoury and, wow, isn't she good with them?!

2. Rosalind is banished from the Court and heads to the Forest of Arden quite early on in the play. Initially, for her safety, she disguises herself as a young man named Ganymede, a persona she ends up maintaining right up until the end of the play.

A woman in a black vest and leather trousers.
Disguised as Ganymede.
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

Where does this creation come from in Rosalind's brain? How does Ganymede move and what does he look like? What does it mean to 'become a man' on the outside but still be a woman underneath?

These are the sorts of questions actors and directors have to tackle when approaching the play.

The change we see in Rosalind once she adopts this androgynous disguise is remarkable. It releases her mind and body from the limitations previously imposed on her in the world of the Court and becomes a vehicle for her to push sexual boundaries, to transgress and blur accepted gender norms and explore the extent of her power and intellectual prowess in the Forest. It's incredible to think Shakespeare wrote this woman in 1599 or thereabouts, as she's an identifiable heroine for our time, too.

3. She has a BFF (Best Friend Forever) in her cousin Celia.

A woman in a bright pink dress kneels over a laughing woman who holds a glass of champagne.
Rosalind with Celia (Sophie Khan Levy).
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

One of my favourite parts of the process so far has been exploring the scenes between Rosalind and Celia with the fiercely intelligent and brilliant actress that is Sophie Khan Levy. The relationship between the two is described as 'never two ladies loved as they do' or, as Celia herself says, 'Wheresoe'er we went... Still we went coupled and inseparable.'

We have both often felt dissatisfied with the representation of female friendship in fiction, so it is really important to us to show and celebrate a modern, complex, truthful, deep friendship between two women onstage. They are Thelma and Louise, Elsa and Anna from Frozen, CC and Hilary in Beaches, Muriel and Rhonda in Muriel's Wedding, icons of freedom and friendship.

Rosalind and Celia pass the Bechdel test within three minutes of us meeting them, choosing to sit together and debate their thoughts on philosophy and gender equality rather than talk about men, and that is a glorious moment for us in the play. They are funny, intelligent, courageous women and together they are unstoppable.

4. Rosalind then falls head over heels for this man called Orlando.

A young woman disguised as a man and a young man sit on the floor, back to back.
Rosalind (as Ganymede) with Orlando (played by David Ajao).
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

Rosalind is unwavering in her love for Orlando from the moment she meets him, referring to him as the future 'father of her child'. Although Orlando is equally intent on her, of course they have quite a few hurdles to overcome — approximately four Acts worth of hurdles — including Rosalind staying in disguise and not revealing her true identity to Orlando once they meet in the forest.

Why does she do this? Despite her heart telling her Orlando is the person for her, I believe her head won’t let her give up her independence that easily to someone she only met for two minutes in Act 1! Who wouldn’t want to explore, challenge and question their potential life partner’s values and ideas about love, equality and marriage before deciding whether to take a leap of faith? 

So, with all this in mind, who do I think Rosalind is? So far I'd say that Rosalind is 'human'. She is all of us, asking important questions about life and love, learning how to be, who she wants to be, and finding her place in the world. She isn't containable or definable. She is a spirit that is continuously developing and expanding throughout the play, her short three-hour life. I'm going to enjoy her company and what she teaches me over the next 13 months.