The women rocked the stage in Kimberley Sykes’ As You Like It. From the stoic melancholy of Jacques (played by Sophie Stanton) to the comedy genius Emily Johnstone brought as her Amiens struggled with her stilettos on the grass, the female characters continually stole the limelight. Lucy Phelps is a phenomenal Rosalind, showing the audience every doubt, every passion and every fear that she felt as she threw herself into loving Orlando. Sophie Khan Levy equals her in character as Celia, using her frequent unspeaking presence on stage to great comic effect, using her skirts to hide herself as a stone or reading an audience member’s programme as she had to sit and watch Rosalind and Orlando’s witty exchanges.
“The women rocked the stage.”
However, the opening (featuring the men at court) did not set my expectations very high. Orlando (David Ajao) began the first scene sitting contemplatively on a swing (I’m still not quite sure why, this swing did not reappear or play any important part in proceedings). But his sad contemplation quickly flipped to a violent anger at his brother whom he physically attacked. This dramatic outburst left me unable to completely trust Orlando, and his lovelorn foolery in the second half felt slightly disingenuous because of it. Duke Frederick’s moment of violence towards Rosalind, on the other hand, clearly came from a deep seated jealousy and mistrust of others that threaten his authority and so became a powerful moment that defines Duke Frederick and lingered as Antony Byrne changes his costume on stage to become Duke Senior.
Apart from the moments of comedy provided by the actors, the overall tone of the production was rather melancholic. There were times when the action felt a little stiff and perhaps too static. This production’s conceptual firepower is contained within one conceit; that the forest of Arden is the theatre laid bare. The court is confined by the expected theatrical effects of dimmed house lights, simple black backdrop and, for some reason, a circle of faux grass. Arden is created as the stage hands join the actors on stage, the curtains are dropped to reveal backstage and a costume rail is wheeled on before the house lights are brought up and the audience is left as exposed as the actors. This is certainly an unusual interpretative choice to dispel with any forest signifiers apart from the wood of the theatre itself. An indoor Globe is created within the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and a very convenient wooden O is revealed to be the focal point, made up of the boards the actors would have trodden on beneath the grass; a neat idea. I just wish I understood what was meant by it. Does this production of As You Like It become a critique on theatre practice? Is the RSC voicing a desire to emulate the practices of the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London? The downside is that the space feels quite cold and empty at times and the setting is very confused.
“The forest of Arden is the theatre laid bare.”
The finale embraced the unusual deus ex machina effect that the sudden entrance of Hymen supplies, employing an enormous puppet and emulating the practices of the Handspring Puppet Company. The actors seemed slightly bemused at Hymen’s presence but generally didn’t take much notice. The actor/puppeteers make the giant god breathe and accompany his presence with some beautiful country harmonies that reminded me a little too much of War Horse. If this aesthetic had been used throughout Arden, more creatures or characters created using puppetry, I might have felt more attune to the tone of the production.
Overall, I was left a little confused, but undoubtedly entertained.
As You Like It runs in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until August 31st 2019. It then tours the UK from September 25th until April 4th 2020. Tickets can be purchased here.
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