18th Sep, 2019

Review - As You Like It, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon

Ian Hughes 22nd Feb, 2019 Updated: 3rd Apr, 2019

As You Like It

RST, Stratford-upon-Avon

THE FOREST is a key component of Shakespeare’s bucolic rumination on love but you need your imagination to see a tree in this production.

Director Kimberley Sykes says she spent a lot of time reading about the nature of forests and discovered trees were extremely social entities – even going as far as sending nutrients via their root system to help save a struggling neighbour.

It was therefore not such a large leap to take the forest as a metaphor for society and have the audience actually become the Forest of Arden. A few trees are even uprooted from their seats to give Orlando (David Ajao) a helping hand with his love scribblings to his Rosalind (Lucy Phelps).

And with society in mind it was also not such a big jump to ask the audience to consider the action unfolding before them against the disunity of this sceptred isle today, and that question of to Brexit or not to Brexit.

This is done in a production bursting with imagination and ideas – arguably a few too many of the latter – and by and large it makes for three enjoyable hours.

Panto, stand-up, improvisation, music, song and dance – together with the now almost trademark RSC mish-mash of costumes – are all thrust onto the stage of this sugar-rush of a production, one envisaged as “a massive exploration of theatre” itself. So when the action switches to the forest it is clearly to a theatre the audience is taken. The cast change on stage, the lights go up, and everything is visible behind the scenes.

All the world may be a stage here but visually it does not make for a great spectacle.

On this stage Phelps and Ajao make for an affecting main couple, Sophie Khan Levy is a marvellous Celia, while Emily Johnstone endears as both Le Beau and Amiens.

Sandy Grierson’s Max Wall meets Billy Connolly fool Touchtone is at his best in the clever and comic sign language wooing of Audrey, wonderfully played by deaf actress Charlotte Arrowsmith.

The production’s gender-swapping does not fare so well. Sophie Stanton’s Jacques lacks comic melancholy, and making young shepherd Silvius into Silvia seems rather pointless, and also begs the question why Laura Elsworthy’s terrific brash Phoebe did not make Rosalind marry her at the end simply out of spite if she was going to finish up with a woman anyway.

It’s a fun journey to the final four marriages before a huge puppet Hymen God of Marriage is wheeled on stage and the audience all clap along to the final musical shindig.

It would still have been nice to actually see the odd tree or two on stage though.

As You Like It runs at the RST until August 31.

Visit www.rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.

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