I was somewhat disappointed in the new production of As You Like It at the RSC in Stratford directed by Kimberley Sykes, but I was definitely in a very small minority. The audience clearly adored it. They laughed in all the right places, applauded wildly and were clearly very satisfied. The show was very nicely designed, it had splendid moments of visual business and the cast was totally adept and into the roles, they were playing. The music was catchy – but for me, it was extraneous, did not really fit in with any mood or vision of the play. The text itself was very well read and conveyed, but I somehow found this production without charm or magic, just lots of humour.
The actors were directed to do a lot of very clever mechanical movements throughout. There was almost too much business, which I found a distraction from listening to what was being said quite often. I was especially irritated, in fact, by the way, Touchstone, played by Sandy Grierson, was made to posture and smirk. He did it brilliantly and was a bit of a sinister, self-indulgent Touchstone, I have to admit. It worked as immediately laugh-inducing theatre, but it was ultimately repetitive and a bit tedious. It typified for me what I disliked about this approach – it missed out entirely on the complexity, the magic, the mystery and the charm of the play; and it was ultimately a one-dimensional approach.
As You Like It when done with real sympathy is memorable and moving. I found Kimberley Sykes’s approach technically adept, lively but shallow. That said, I would love to see Lucy Phelps do the role sometime without all the misplaced body language and arch deliveries of some of the lines. I like that Anthony Byrne played both Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, the usurper. I thought that the casting of Sophie Stanton as Jaques worked. I am still not convinced by a lot of the cross-casting of females in male roles or males in female roles, but maybe that is just me being old fashioned. Still, Stanton had gravitas and seriousness and seemed to understand her character strongly. She also gave a fine reading of the main Jaques speeches, and a hint at the end of being in love with the banished Duke at that made me actually wonder about applying that idea to a production that has Jaques cast as a man. Why else would he follow the Duke into exile and be so sour and self-protective?
David Ajao seemed to me to be only adequate as Orlando, to miss out on the underlying toughness that makes him survive years of psychological and physical abuse from his brother. But Leo Wan as that brother was somehow very striking; scarily mean in the first sequence, he was convincing when he reappears converted to goodness and redeemed and falls in love with an attractive and lively Celia, played by Sophie Khan Levy. If you have never seen the play before, this is a very entertaining production and it certainly does the job of telling the story. But there is very little in it that is going to illuminate the deeper meanings or make you rethink the play. And the characterizations are quite skin-deep too. The visuals were striking; the cast is lively; they work hard, and the appearance of Hymen at the end was a very interesting moment. The audience was clearly very pleased. Personally, I cannot rave about it, I found myself disappointed; but I also was not sorry to have seen it and I would very much like to see Lucy Phelps, Leo Wan and Sophie Stanton again in particular.
- By William Shakespeare
- Director: Kimberley Sykes
- Composer: Tim Sutton
- Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company
- Live Broadcast to cinemas on 17 April 2019
- Cast Includes: Lucy Phelps, Antony Byrne, Sophie Khan Levy, David Ajao, Leo Wan, Sandy Grierson, Sophie Stanton
- Venue: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK
- Playing at the RST until 31 August 2019 and then on tour to various venues across the UK between 25 September 2019 and 4 April 2020