THEATRE REVIEW: As You Like It

Tuesday saw the 449th birthday of that most hallowed of playwrights, William Shakespeare, and I happened to be fortunate enough to see As You Like It, the latest production to grace the stage at The RSC.

Photo by Keith Pattison
It also happened to be one of the warmest days of the year so far as the lengthy winter turned reluctantly into a warm spring day - a transition similar to that of the play itself - a development which makes it perfectly suited to kick off The RSC's summer season. Despite it being one of Shakespeare's most beloved plays, As You Like It was not one I was familiar with so I approached this with a hearty level of enthusiasm. This, unlike many other of the Bard's works, was going to be a complete surprise; and a surprise it was, of the most wonderful and heartwarming variety.

Beginning in the dark, wintery monochrome of the court of Duke Frederick (John Stahl), we are first introduced to Orlando (Alex Waldmann), a young nobleman spurned by his brother Oliver (Luke Norris) into a life of servitude, living on the outskirts of society. In the court itself, Rosalind (Pippa Nixon) has been forced to remain behind after her father, Duke Senior (Cliff Burnett) is banished, spending her days with her best friend and Frederick's daughter Celia (Joanna Horton). However, no sooner has she fallen in love with Orlando in a chance meeting, she is banished and forced to hide as a boy, Ganymede, in the Forest of Arden, meeting with her love and unable to declare her feelings.

One of the most publicised aspects of this production was the music as it was composed by award-winning musician Laura Marling and it is certainly a highlight. The harsh, percussion-driven music that backs the scenes at Duke Frederick's court compliments the stark atmosphere well. However, it is once the action transfers into the Forest of Arden that the music really excels. The Forest scenes take place in a folksy other-world of dreadlocks, hammocks and dancing, presided over by Duke Senior looking like an ageing rock star. Whether it's a thoughtful song about falling in love, a comical declaration of the very same or a celebration of marriage, Marling uses the text to wonderful effect, giving the play an absorbing and playful atmosphere.

Aiding Marling's music is the production design; as mentioned, the folksy theme of the Forest of Arden allows for all sorts of great costume combinations. Nixon wears Rosalind's boyish costumes well in an exaggeration of masculinity, whilst Celia looks like she's wandered in from Glastonbury. It works well, linking in with the pastoral setting of the final two thirds of the play, providing the set dressing for what is an otherwise a largely minimalistic stage. The past two productions I've seen (reviewed here and here) were far too fussy with their sets, but Naomi Dawson's design was beautiful in its simplicity, a revolving stage with wooden pillars to signify the trees, inspiring the required amount of awe whenever it was employed. 

The lack of complicated staging also allowed for the ensemble cast to shine with each actor performing their parts, big or small, with a wonderful wit and understanding. Waldmann cuts a dashing figure as the lovelorn Orlando, expertly balancing the comic and the emotional. Horton's Celia nearly manages to steal the show with an excellent musical number and Oliver Ryan's Jaques performs the famous Seven Ages of Man speech energetically. However, As You Like It is a play that lives or dies with its Rosalind so it fell to Pippa Nixon to portray one of Shakespeare's most famous and beloved heroines. Nixon gives a masterful performance, delivering Rosalind's many one-liners with aplomb and taking to the stage with such energy that you can't help but be swept up along with her.

It is that energy, of the entire production, that makes As You Like It feel like one big party you just happened to wander into, complete with songs, dodgy dancing and even a wrestling match. One of the play's big set pieces, the wrestling match is extremely well choreographed and with more than a few hits that make you wince. Likewise, when the celebratory songs begin, you might find your toes tapping along unwillingly, or in my case, head nodding enthusiastically. 

As You Like It is the perfect way to herald in the warmer weather; it's riotous, mesmerising, hilarious, bawdy, anarchic, tragic and simply brilliant. A properly feel-good production, it is one of the most fun evenings I've had at the theatre for a long time. I may already be planning to go again...

*****

- Becky

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