Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Kimberley Sykes
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Director Kimberley Sykes uses the current production of As You Like It to examine whether, as is opined in the play, the world really is a stage. The show opens in what might be considered the traditional manner- a bleak monochrome court from which the increasingly paranoid Duke has banished many of his most trusted advisors. When the Duke exiles his niece Rosalind (Lucy Phelps) she joins other displaced courtiers in the Forest of Arden accompanied by her best friend (and the Duke’s daughter) Celia (Sophie Khan Levy) .This being a play by Shakespeare, rather than bring along a bodyguard, they are accompanied by The Fool, Touchstone (Sandy Grierson). So, to discourage possible attackers, Rosalind disguises herself as a man. This leads to complications when she re-encounters Orlando ( Aaron Thiara) with whom there is a mutual attraction and meets Silvia (Amelia Donkor) who is attracted to Rosalind’s male persona.
Throughout the early scenes an ominous creaking noise is audible culminating- as the characters move to Arden – in a snap that results in the backdrop falling to reveal a bustling backstage scene complete with stage announcements and wardrobe. The house lights go up and the fourth wall is well and truly breached with the audience being addressed directly as if forming part of the band in the forest and, at various points in the play, asked to help out with scenes. Now are we all in Arden and playing our parts on the stage.
Actually the forest is notable by being absent. Not only is the play is set backstage at The Lowry, with ladders and other jumble clearly visible, the cast are aware they are on stage and regularly give music and lighting cues. The only real sense of a pagan setting in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design is a jaw-dropping appearance of a massive forest spirit in the closing scenes. This knowing, artificial approach raises the risk of alienating the audience. This is, however, offset by the constant efforts to ensure direct participation rather than relying on the storyline to secure involvement.
This is a highly contemporary production and not simply in the style of costumes. The casting is gender fluid with male roles played by women. Most significantly the melancholy Jacques is played as a woman by Sophie Stanton. The text is tweaked to include female pronouns and the famous monologue explains each soul rather than each man plays many parts on the stage of the world. Stanton is a more acerbic sardonic presence than the lugubrious interpretation to which audiences are accustomed for the character.
The tyrant Duke is surprisingly politically correct requiring his national anthem to be interpreted in sign language. Sign language adds a degree of physical comedy in the courtship between Touchstone and Audrey (Charlotte Arrowsmith) who is hearing-impaired so their flirting is conducted in mime.
In a production stuffed full of contemporary touches it is inevitable that not all work. It is implied Silvia is Gay which makes it hard to understand why she would be attracted to Rosalind dressed as a man but lose interest when her true female gender is revealed.
There are fine comic performances. Understudy Aaron Thiara steps confidently into the role of Orlando bringing a hint of social class awareness with a laid-back Birmingham accent. Sandy Grierson channels Dad’s Army’s Frazer for his downbeat clown. Lucy Phelps and Sophie Khan Levy are an excellent double act with the latter’s warm understated performance acting as a counterpoint to Phelps’s increasingly nervy character. Phelps and Grierson excel at the audience involvement aspects of the play dousing the front row in glitter or offering nudge-nudge wink wink asides after ogling her boyfriend.
Despite the individual performances the sheer number of ideas crammed into the production limits the extent to which comic momentum can be achieved. Director Kimberley Sykes never reaches the point where incident rushes into incident and pushes the audience towards hysteria.
Faster pacing would have made The Royal Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It even funnier and it might have been advisable to consider if all of the contemporary ideas worked. Yet this production is highly engaging; giving the audience a chance to play their part and goes some way to proving that the world might really be a stage.
Runs until 5 October 2019 | Image: Topher McGrillis