The Royal Shakespeare Company has had a mini festival over the last three days, via their partnership with Marquee TV, releasing their last three productions of 2019: The Taming Of The Shrew, Measure For Measure and As You Like It. The most famous speech in this latter play (indeed, one of the most famous in all Shakespeare) is “The Seven Ages Of Man” which uses the extended metaphor of the stage to describe human progress through life. And it is the theatricality of these lines which is taken as the focus point for this particular production.
As Rosalind, Celia, Orlando and Adam leave the tightly controlled world of Duke Frederick’s court they enter the Forest of Arden, here presented as the backstage area of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre itself. The banished Duke and his followers are a motley crew of theatricals who welcome the banished quartet with open arms and make them part of their show biz family. It is a world where reality is turned on its head and where individuals can find their true selves through the medium of pretence, physical and verbal play and a communal spirit. The audience too are invited to be part of this as the house lights are often left up, actors hide in the stalls and a few punters are commandeered to become part of the action. As You Like It can seem a very disjointed play and becomes increasingly so as more subplots get thrown into the mix. Here the overarching theme helps to put some scaffolding around the piece although it is still hard to see things as other than a series of separate scenes…although perhaps that actually plays into the theatricality rather than works against it. Hmmm!
It is easy to forget that Rosalind is actually the longest female role in Shakespeare (even if she does spend most of the play pretending to be a boy) when she disappears from the action for quite a significant amount of time. But in Lucy Phelps’s delightful interpretation the balance is redressed, and her tale becomes the centre of the narrative. Phelps is verbally dextrous and a good physical comedian such that we are quickly won over to her cause. Her interchanges with Celia are a particular highlight and it is good to see Sophie Khan Levy playing the role in a far more knowing and feisty fashion than is often the case. Phelps’ exchanges with David Ajao as Orlando do not fare quite as well but then they are particularly dense with Shakespearean “wit” which is not easy to follow. Phelps and Ajao quite rightly speed through them and get us to appreciate the characters’ mutual delight in each other, rather than worrying about what every single line actually means.
Touchstone is another character for whom the passage of time has done little service in terms of comprehensibility. He is played here by Sandy Grierson as a debauched looking mash up between Keith Richards and Billy Connolly who has clearly gone into comedy because rock and roll didn’t work out. The scenes between him and Audrey (Charlotte Arrowsmith) worked particularly well, especially the integrated BSL signing which gives another dimension to some scenes. (I didn’t particularly rate Laura Elsworthy or Emily Johnstone in Shrew, so I am pleased to report that their contributions this time round were exceptionally good. Johnstone’s reinvention of both her (traditionally male) characters was spot on as she morphed from a tight-lipped power dressing aide into a freewheeling forest spirit – with a great voice to boot. Another doubled up role was Antony Byrne as the two Dukes – one a right-wing president with narcissistic tendencies (where do they come up with these ideas?), the other the benevolent head of the theatrical troupe. And then there’s Sophie Stanton, pulling off another fine character study (as she did in Shrew) as the melancholy Madame Jacques. She plays the theatrical cynic, the one who’s seen, heard and done it all, to perfection and even managed to make “All the world’s a stage” sound freshly minted.
Kimberley Sykes’s direction is a joyous thing, especially in the closing scenes of the play as the various plot strands merge. Mervyn Millar’s huge puppet figure around which the four (count them, four!) marriages are celebrated and the energetic celebratory dance which follows, once again celebrate the theatrical aspects of the play. It reminds us, in these troubled times, of our commonality and that playmaking is central to our shared culture. Right now, who wouldn’t swap their constrained existence for the joys of Arden?
Production photos by Topher McGrillis
As You Like It is available via Marquee TV. Click here
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