Writer: William Shakespeare
Reviewer: Katy Roberts
The Royal Shakespeare Company is kicking off its summer 2019 season with As You Like It, and what a fine production to open on. As You Like It is a story of the joys (and confusions) of falling in love and has all the classic elements that makes it one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and enduring comedies: mistaken identities and love triangles abound, but there is also a wonderful strength and gravitas that grounds the piece in something altogether more modern.
As the two leads, Lucy Phelps and David Ajao are outstanding; both conveying the giddiness of falling madly in love, but also the creeping doubts and uncertainties that come with it, and you root for the two of them wholeheartedly from start to finish. Nowhere is this more strongly felt than in the play’s second half, when Rosalind (as Ganymede) warns Orlando that, “if you break one jot of your promise, or come one minute behind your hour, I will think you the most pathetical break-promise, and the most hollow lover, and the most unworthy of her you call Rosalind”. Phelps’ wide-eyed, trembling delivery here is hugely affecting, and makes for one of the most powerful moments in the play because – for all her witty bravado as Ganymede – Rosalind is simply a young woman yearning to be loved and not let down by the man she loves so deeply in return. Rosalind is often described as Shakespeare’s most beloved heroine and here she feels more modern than ever; delighting in her passionate, dizzying love for Orlando, this is a woman also acutely tuned in to the cruelties of courtship.
One particularly arresting scene comes when Rosalind tears up a love letter and tells the young, naïve Silvia (Amelia Donkor) – changed from Silvius in the original text – that the perils of pursuing someone who cannot and will not, love you are: “Not. To. Be. Endured”. It is a line delivered with simmering anger, and such striking wisdom that it truly makes you almost wish that Silvia didn’t end up with Phoebe (Laura Elsworthy) in the end so horribly has the young shepherdess been treated by the object of her unrequited affection. This is the one element of the production that doesn’t quite work – Silvia and Phoebe’s relationship is built on so much venom and toxicity on Phoebe’s part that you just don’t quite believe that Silvia would happily marry her at the end (after all Rosalind/Ganymede’s counsel), or that Phoebe would concede to marry Silvia after discovering that Ganymede is, in fact, a woman; a statement at the play’s end that is somewhat jarring considering the fact that Phoebe does, in fact, end up marrying a woman.
As Orlando, David Ajao perfectly captures the character’s joyful, puppyish excitement of falling in love, and he shows his devotion to wooing Rosalind by carving her name in the forest trees – here conveyed using post-it notes stuck to members of the audience, and even one covered in an entire coat of them! It feels so silly but ultimately so pure and charming and genuine that you cannot help but root for him to succeed. The production’s stand-out performance, however, comes from Sandy Grierson as Touchstone. Resplendent in a fabulous red fur coat, highlighter-yellow tartan trousers and red tartan boots, from his first entrance, Grierson’s Touchstone has the audience in the palm of his hand. Grierson’s dry, sarcastic delivery and brilliant physical comedy (his descent from the stage’s upper levels to the floor with a suitcase in tow, is hysterical) make him impossible not to watch whenever he’s on stage. However, As You Like It also feels like an ensemble piece of sorts, and there are plenty of lovely, moving performances from the additional supporting characters: the relationship between Rosalind and Celia is instantly believable, warm and heartfelt throughout; Celia’s decision to leave the court and go with Rosalind is never in doubt. Emily Johnstone is hugely entertaining as Le Beau, an attendant to Duke Frederick in the play’s first half, and Sophie Stanton is fantastic as the ‘mistress of melancholy’ Jacques, matching Touchstone’s humour with a bracing wit of her own, and she delivers the play’s most famous speech with a calm, knowing wisdom.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set design and Bretta Gerecke’s costume and lighting take us through a triad of landscapes during the play’s near 2 hour and 40 minute runtime. From the sombre, concrete-grey of Duke Frederick’s court, all business suits and sharp tempers, we move to the minimalistic ‘desert’ of the Forest of Arden; all dappled light and a gentle stillness that allows the piece to slow, and breathe. The third landscape is a fleeting one; a moment where the worlds of the court and the forest collide, and we are wrenched from Duke Frederick’s court with the collapse of a curtain, revealing the bustling chaos of the theatre, with different actors (and characters) changing roles (most notably Anthony Byrne from Duke Frederick to Duke Senior), but also Rosalind to Ganymede and Celia to Aliena. It takes perhaps less than three minutes, but in that time, the scene adds an entirely new meaning to the phrase ‘All the world’s a stage’.
This is a wonderful opening production for theRSC’s new summer season; laugh-out-loud funny, and performed by a fantastic, diverse cast, this As You Like It has a huge heart and a wholesome warmth that is simply infectious: I defy anyone not to leave with a smile on their face.
Runs Until 31 August 2019 and then touring | Image: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC