REVIEW: ‘As You Like It’, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC

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When Rosalind is banished from court by her Uncle, the Duke Frederick, who sees her as a threat to his rule, she and her cousin Celia flee to the Forest of Arden. Disguising themselves so they won’t be recognised, what ensues is a comic tale of cross-dressing, love triangles and witty repartee.

Kimberley Sykes returns to the RSC to direct Shakespeare’s romantic comedy in this soaring, sparkling production that bursts with joy, merriment, and irrepressible energy, where love threatens to drive you mad.

The opening scenes take place in the court of the usurper, Duke Ferdinand. The stage’s outskirts dark and bare, a large circular piece of turf with a swing hanging above it is a focal point, and one which hints at the playfulness that is to come. When this setting transitions into the Forest of Arden, the turf is ripped away, the swing is lifted, and a dark curtain at the back of the set is removed, revealing the space behind the stage itself, as we see the inner workings of the theatre, as though the production is reminding us of the constraints of reality, compared to the limitless imagination of the play, and the welcoming inventiveness of this adaptation, that invites us to join our characters in enchanting exile in the Forest of Arden.

During the transition, a costume rack filled with weird and wonderful costumes is wheeled on, the setting takes on a leafy, natural feel, and members of the company (including cast members from a show performed in rep in the adjacent Swan Theatre) run around the stage. This is no longer the corporate, suited, modern world of the court – this is something different, something new and exciting, and rather bonkers – a place where time and formality slips away a place that immerses us in euphoric oblivion as we watch with delight cross-dressing heroines, fools, lovers and wise men contemplate love, identity, and mankind. 

As Antony Byrne’s Duke Senior welcomes us to the Forest, addressing us as though we too are its newfound residents, all house lights in the auditorium are switched on as we inhabit this illuminating, sylvan setting.

Lucy Phelps gives a magnificent central performance as Rosalind. Sharp, witty and energetic, the epitome of a modern heroine, her performance is full of life, heart and hope, with moments of frantic intensity. Disguised as the male Ganymede, as the character gets a feel for her new identity, she plays around with accents, her boisterous, laddish movement exaggerated to great comic effect, as she tries, almost too hard, to be a man. Despite her trousers and braces (the modern-day equivalent of doublet and hose), there remains a womanly sensitivity and gentleness to the character, which aids her in bringing all to a satisfying and happy conclusion at the play’s close.

Sophie Khan Levy is wonderful as Celia, cousin to Rosalind. As the current Duke’s daughter, she begins the production as being used to a certain glamour, comfortable in pink dress and heels. When she flees to the Forest of Arden with Rosalind and the fool Touchstone, she trails behind, bemoaning a lack of food, water and rest. More hesitant than Rosalind, she gently cautions her to be wary of love. Her time in the Forest, disguised as the stranger Aliena, seems to affect her, and she gives in to its rural romanticism and, leaves and twigs in hair, she falls in love at first sight with the repentant Oliver.  

Phelps and Levy have a touching, sisterly chemistry, and as they laugh, dance and talk of love, the bond between them never falters.

David Ajao is cool, confident and utterly charming as Orlando. After falling in love with Rosalind, he is forced to flee to the Forest to escape the wicked plots of his brother Oliver, who has ordered his death. A suave, shuffling swaggerer, he is the quintessential courtly lover, carving Rosalind’s name into trees and penning love poetry, eager to learn of Ganymede how to woo her successfully.

Sandy Grierson is glorious as the tartan-clad fool Touchstone. With a touch of Russell Brand about his performance, he is cheeky, often racy, and takes great liberties with an audience who delight in his tom-foolery. Extravagant and flamboyant, in tartan yellow and black leggings, red and black boots, anda red fur coat, he too soon adapts to life in the forest, trading his coat for one made of sheepskin. He falls in love with Charlotte Arrowsmith’s feisty country girl Audrey, and there are moments of hysterically entertaining slapstick as Tom Dawze’s sweet-tempered William translates Touchstone’s wild gesticulation into British Sign Language. 

Sophie Stanton exudes a dignified wisdom as Jacques, a lord discontented with life at court, now wandering the Forest of Arden. With a moving air of melancholy, she delivers the famous ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech with a keen sense of knowing and understanding, making philosophical observations concerning the state of mankind with a beautiful honesty and refreshing zeal, in what is a touching expression of the nature of humanity.

Antony Byrne is authoritative as Dukes Frederick and Senior, harsh and dominant as the first, kindly and honourable as the second.

Leo Wan is a great as a paranoid Oliver, the character himself acting well as he persuades Graeme Brooke’s formidable wrestler Charles that his brother Orlando must die out of necessity, before swinging childishly on the scene’s central prop.

Emily Johnstone is hilarious as the courtier Le Beau, a performance reminiscent of The Hunger Games’ Effie as she (rather unsuccessfully) struts in stilettos, wig and blazer shoulder-pads befitting of The Capitol. As musician Amiens, she sings bewitchingly the poetry of Shakespeare to a melodic score.

The play is one that frequently allows for the breaking of the theatrical fourth wall, and this production takes great satisfaction in encouraging communication and interaction with its audience members. Jokes are made at our expense, pancakes are thrown from character to unsuspecting audience member (and occasionally thrown back), some are even selected to become join the characters onstage, becoming the trees that bear the fruit of Orlando’s love for Rosalind, as upon them he adorns the letters of Rosalind’s name, or plasters them in post-it notes bearing poetic expressions of his love. 

A fantastical puppet is brought onto the stage for the final scenes, an omnipotent being that oversees the resolution of all, before the lovers descend into a celebratory dance of carefree abandon.

After this party in the Forest, Rosalind returns to the stage to address the audience with an epilogue. Though, she muses, good plays do not require an epilogue, good plays are made even better by the addition of one. Entreating us to bid farewell to herself and her companions, securing for them a release from theatrical convention, she is met with rapturous applause. Whilst she has asked us to like as much of the play as we please, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person that did not love all of this play. 

‘As You Like It’ banishes us to the pastoral paradise of the Forest of Arden but, more reward than punishment, we delight in the rustic revels conjured by the RSC’s playful, passionate production of this much-loved comedy.

 

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