FOR the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first production of 2019, director Kimberly Sykes invites us into the Forest of Arden for her riotous new version of As You Like It.
And what a powerful start as a stellar cast and crew combine with a unique creative vision for what is essentially a romp through a series of tangled love stories.
For a story of its time, the subjects of gender norms and sexuality are tackled remarkably well with fascinating glimpses of alternative gender expressions and erotic arrangements. Not only does our central character Rosalind, present as a male and attract lovers of both genders, but her gender fluidity underscores a recognition in the play that gender is performative and unstable.
Arguably one of the most notable female Shakespearean characters, Rosalind is banished to the Forest of Arden by her cruel uncle Duke Frederick, where she falls in love with Orlando.
Lucy Phelps is a triumph in this role, as she compellingly negotiates the complexities of her emotions.
She is ably supported Sophie Khan Levy who brilliantly portrays the two sides of Celia’s character with the right balance of humour and prudence. Together they also successfully explore another type of relationship – the strong bond of female friendship.
Undeniable stage presence too from David Ajao whose animated portrayal of Orlando desperately trying to win Rosalind’s love is one of the play’s comedic highlights.
Others include madcap comedy moments aplenty from Sandy Grierson as Touchstone and Emily Johnstone as Amiens and Le Beau. And a degree of audience participation helps keep the fun apace, even pulling members of the audience up onto stage to be the butt of some pre-interval laughs. – Hints of Elizabethan panto one might say.
But this ensemble piece very much feels like a team effort with a stellar company of actors holding court with its audience from start to finish.
There is a huge focus on the ‘visible audience’ within this production when the house lights suddenly go down and the black curtains obscuring half the stage fall away. Breaking through the ‘fourth wall,’ the audience is greeted by the chaotic spectacle of the cast changing costumes, playing with props and chattering incomprehensibly. A little confusing at first, but actually a clever and engaging method for the story’s transition.
A rousing final epilogue delivered brilliantly by Rosalind brings the metaphorical curtain down on what I consider to be another huge success for the RSC.
With fantastic new direction this beautiful retelling of a complex story is insatiably immersive – and a promising taster for the season ahead.
As You Like It plays at the RSC, in Stratford-upon-Avon until August 31st. Tickets are available here.