REVIEW: As You Like It
Audience participation, a disco mirror ball, Post It notes and puppetry feature in Kimberley Sykes’ lively take on Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy at the RST, Stratford-upon-Avon.
The first play to open in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this year is Kimberley Sykes’s As You Like It, a rom-com with gender fluidity at its core. It follows her RSC debut in 2017, a stunningly original revival of Marlowe’s rarely told Dido, Queen of Carthage, in The Swan.
She brings with her two members of her previous cast, the excellent Lucy Phelps and Sandy Grierson – both give magnificent, magnetic performances. Phelps is a vigorous, very modern Rosalind radiating humour and warmth; while Grierson’s a raucous Scottish glam punk Touchstone wears yellow plaid skinnies, red plaid Chelsea boots and smudged black eyeliner with a rock star swagger.
The play conjures up two different worlds opening within the strict, ordered confines of Duke Frederick’s court, then moving to the free-spirited Bohemian Forest of Arden. The second half really picking up pace. We’re not aware of a time or place in Stephen Brimson Lewis and Bretta Gerecke’s design, but it looks very modern.
This is a play set in the world of theatre itself where the actors have been let loose in the costume wardrobe. Characters swap smart grey suits for a mish-mash of free-styling costumes from Celia’s corseted dress with a multitude of petticoats to hippy-ish tie-dye and faux fur as they run for the trees.
The Forest of Arden is a forest without trees, a platform runs above a minimalist stage. As Touchstone enters the forest he ingeniously lowers himself from platform to stage simultaneously dangling his red suitcase from his foot to the audience’s delight. It’s quite a physical feat and earns Grierson a rapturous applause.
Always compelling, Antony Byrne doubles up as the dictator-like Duke Frederick – possessing the subtle menace of a Scorsese gangster in a pinstripe suit – and his gentle brother, the barefooted bohemian Duke Senior living in exile in the Forest. I enjoyed the close female camaraderie of Rosalind and her theatrical cousin, Celia, delightfully played by Sophie Khan Levy, as well as Emily Johnstone’s comic turn as Duke Frederick’s blonde-bobbed PA.
David Ajao’s sweet-natured, tongue-tied Orlando dances to Calypso under a disco mirror ball and sticks Post It love notes for Rosalind onto members of the audience in place of trees. His performance has real charm and there’s a steamy chemistry between him and Rosalind. She’s a wily, intelligent live-wire with great comic precision and physicality. While dressed up as androgynous Ganymede in white t-shirt, braces and tailored trousers, she convinces Orlando to confide his feelings for Rosalind hilariously shifting between showy laddish-ness, wittily mimicking several accents, and then swooning behind his back.
Rosalind is not the only gender swapping female. Jacques, the melancholic traveller, who utters the famous All the World a Stage speech, is nicely under-played by Sophie Stanton.
The shepherd Silvius becomes wide-eyed, love-lorn Silvia – a lovely performance by Leamington Spa actor Amelia Donkor – who’s in hot pursuit of Phoebe, Laura Elsworthy’s bolshy Northerner. Their same-sex marriage, a contemporary tweak that stops the ending from feeling too conventional or twee.
An ingenious production it draws the audience into the backstage workings of the play itself. We definitely feel All the World’s A Stage from the moment the exiled Duke clicks his fingers and the main auditorium lights go up for the duration of the play. Actors interact playfully with the audience. Touchstone leaps off the stage with such vigour part of his binoculars snaps off, he shouts “Shit!” and hands it to a lady in the front row, politely asking: “Can you look after this?”
It’s the first of three plays by a 50/50 gender-balanced and culturally diverse company, designed to ‘reflect the nation’ with The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure, also starring Phelps, to follow. It’s lovely to hear the breadth of regional accents and feels genuinely inclusive. In one of the funniest scenes Touchstone attempts to woo goatherd Audrey – deaf actor Charlotte Arrowsmith – who’s wearing matching plaid, using sign language with the help of William – Tom Dawze – as interpreter, until realising he’s also in love with her! It’s cleverly done.
The jubilant panto-like ending has the couples walking under the body of a giant puppet – the god of marriage Hymen – which weirdly looks quite childlike – before breaking into song and dance. Traditional live music turns into a guitar riff. Sykes’s As You Like It feels like entering an uplifting Utopian world with a rebellious rock n’ roll underbelly. A beguiling combination.
As You Like It runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until Aug 31, rsc and broadcast live in cinemas across the country on Apr 17. It’s then touring six regional venues from Sept 25 – April 4, 2020. You can check venues and book tickets here.