DramaLondonReviewShakespeare

As You Like It – Barbican Theatre, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Kimberley Sykes

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

All the world’s a stage, we hear from As You Like It’s most famous soliloquy. And so, muses Kimberley Sykes’ production for the RSC, is the Forest of Arden. Once action moves away from Duke Frederick’s court, the house lights come up and the theatre becomes the forest, the audience the trees.

In truth, that probably played better in the confines of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre than in the concrete brutalism of the Barbican Theatre, no matter how much designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set evokes the wooden galleries of the Globe. But the theatre-as-forest metaphor is plundered extensively, including having a rack of actors’ costumes wheeled on, and Antony Byrne’s imperious Duke Frederick transforming into the bucolic exiled Duke Senior in front of our eyes.

Some of these tricks work better than others. A few attempts at audience participation, principally led by Sandy Grierson’s anarchic punk clown Touchstone, enliven proceedings somewhat (“There’s a general election this Christmas,” Grierson ad-libs. “You need to get your pants fix in now.”) And Touchstone’s wooing of the goatherd Audrey is enhanced by the casting of deaf actor Charlotte Arrowsmith, meaning Touchstone initially requires a sign language interpreter – who just happens to be Audrey’s other suitor, William (Tom Dawze). The move puts a welcome twist on the trio’s comic romance moments.

But while Touchstone’s clowning justifies Grierson’s wild-eyed, over-the-top performance, elsewhere several performances seem larger than is needed, to the detriment of character and sympathy. Maybe it is the actors’ attempt to place the performance in the Barbican’s large space, but several subtleties of As You Like It’s gender fluid hookups get lost among all the declamations.

That is a shame, for there’s something very engaging about Lucy Phelps’s Rosalind, especially when posing as the exiled Ganymede. True, Ganymede’s accent – which roams the British Isles before disappearing entirely – is hardly as fine as David Ajao’s Orlando suggests, but Phelps’s relationship with Ajao, and even more so with Sophie Khan Levy’s Celia, is engaging when not lost among all the shouting.

Overall, there is an inconsistency of style at work that distracts from a better appreciation of the play. In particular, Sykes struggles with the frequent intercutting between the romantic storylines in the play’s closing acts, making them painful to the point where one almost wonders why anyone in this forest would ever want to be romantically involved with anyone else in Arden.

More subdued, and all the better for it, are Byrne’s Duke Senior, all bonhomie and warmth, and his melancholic courtier Jaques, played by Sophie Stanton. Stanton has a grasp of the space that others lack, commanding both the stage and the audience with seemingly effortless grace.

Indeed, apart from an impressive realisation of the god Hymen in the play’s conclusion, it is Stanton’s performance that registers the most strongly. And it is concerning when a show based on comic romantic couplings has a solitary cynic as its strongest role.

Continues until 18 January 2020 | Image: Topher McGrillis

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