As You Like It (RSC) at the Barbican is a ‘true celebration’ directed with ‘verve and style’
Shakespeare’s greenest play As You Like It is a personal favourite. Exploring themes of city versus country, family and renaissance love poetry, it is a play that extolls the virtues of taking a step back and taking the wider view, and God knows we need that now.
This RSC production has transferred from Stratford to the Barbican, the company’s London home. For the uninitiated, Shakespeare’s comedy is set mostly in the forest of Arden, which is populated by the exiled Duke Senior and his merry band of Robin Hood wannabes. Senior’s daughter Rosalind is banished by Duke Frederick, who has recently taken the throne, and is followed by Celia and the clown Touchstone. For protection, Rosalind dresses as a boy, the mythical Ganymede, and then ends up tutoring her lover Orlando in the art of wooing. Add a number of rural bumpkins, some metaphysical contemplation and a breeze of cross-dressing irony, and you have As You Like It.
The lovelorn Orlando comments “There is no clock in the forest”, and this production directed by Kimberley Sykes proves the play’s timeless quality. Once the action moves to Arden, the houselights in the theatre rise and Antony Byrne, who plays both Dukes, looks to the audience and laughs. Here we are, in the forest. The slight sense of mirroring achieved is well done, whilst the audience’s implicit participation throughout does suggest “all the world’s a stage” indeed.
Touchstone’s lover Audrey (Charlotte Arrowsmith) is here deaf, with William (Tom Dawze) both her interpreter and scorned romantic interest, adding a new dimension to the play’s focus on “poetical” language. The fourth couple, Phoebe (Laura Elsworthy) and Silvia (Amelia Donkor), often Sylvius, also depart from the heteronormative original.
Sophie Stanton also plays Jacques, that melancholy extempore philosopher, with a surprising amount of warmth. A slight change suggests she is in a relationship with Duke Senior, adding to the role’s uncertainty in the forest.
The evening goes, however, rightly to Lucy Phelps’ Rosalind. Energetic and affable, with frequent nods to the audience or jumping off the stage itself, Phelps is intoxicating and it’s little surprise Orlando falls for her so quickly.
Also superb was Sophie Khan Levy’s spoilt Celia (a vision in bubblegum pink before her transformation to forest regular) and Sandy Grierson’s deliciously naughty Touchstone, who makes one think of what Billy Connolly would have been like playing Shakespeare (he would’ve been very good).
Bretta Gerecke’s lighting is an instrumental part of the success of this production. With spotlights focusing on characters or as mentioned the auditorium being lit, there’s a fizzing sense of excitement that runs throughout this production. This is for all intents and purposes a true celebration of all that Shakespeare’s play first proposed in the renaissance, and now Sykes has brought it into the twenty-first century with verve and style – we could all do a trip to Arden at the moment.
As You Like It is being performed in rep with Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew at the Barbican until 18 January.
Photograph: Topher McGrillis.