As You Like It

Reviewer's rating

As You Like It is a pastoral comedy set in two opposite realms. The play begins in a suffocating ducal palace and then moves to the leafy and joyous Forest of Arden. In the ducal palace we see duplicitous court politics at play, but in the Forest of Arden we find characters invigorated by a proximity to and understanding of nature. We soon discover that these forest dwellers, who are less wealthy than the courtiers, are far richer in spirit.

As You Like It focuses on duality: younger brother versus older, rural versus urban, and joy versus pain. The play opens with a weasel-like Oliver (Leo Wan) plotting against his brother Orlando (David Ajao). Oliver conspires to kill Orlando by pitting him against a sinewy competitor in a wrestling match. Oliver’s treachery introduces us to the typical dangers associated with the duke’s court; his ill-fitting power suit makes him look like some weedy stockbroker, encapsulating his insolent and arrogant characteristics. In addition, the choice to cast a black Orlando adds a dimension of racial persecution to the play and hammers home the unfairness of his maltreatment.

In this production clothes become closely representative of personalities. We see characters later double as their shadows, wearing new robes and attitudes. Antony Byrne plays Duke Frederick as ruthless and irascible, strutting around in pinstripe suit with a tight starched collar, and Byrne later plays Duke Senior, the contemplative and kinder brother, wearing raggedy clothes befitting a wise hermit. Emily Johnstone, who portrays Le Beau, uses her outfit for comedy, awkwardly clomping about in her high heels when she wants to be taken seriously; her image underscores her role as a stock ridiculous courtier.

Rosalind (Lucy Phelps), the daughter of the kindly Duke Senior, unfortunately falls victim to her villainous uncle’s wrath. Forced to flee, Rosalind assumes a new identity as a boy, Ganymede, alongside her cousin Celia (Sophie Khan Levy), now called Aliena. The blurring of gender boundaries with the bowie-like Ganymede, who is as beautiful as the namesake cupbearer, leads to some gripping romantic entanglements involving Ganymede/Rosalind, Orlando and the shepherdess Phebe. The Forest of Arden, where various love matches are made, is defined by fluidity: the whole theatre is dappled by sunlight, and actors move freely onstage and offstage, such as Orlando who calls on audience members to help him profess his love for Rosalind. The production really brings to the fore the difference between the enchanting forest and the gloomy palace; the impressive mechanism of a large, animatronic fertility effigy is the crowning feature of the forest set.

There are some standout performances in the supporting cast. Touchstone (Sandy Grierson) is Rosalind and Celia’s accompanying fool. Grierson, dressed as a Noel Fielding-type in ostentatious, punk-like attire, plays an excellent Touchstone; he is lecherous and crass, and performs some compelling pieces of physical comedy containing indelicate and lusty horn jokes. On the other end of the spectrum, we find the grave malcontent Jacques (Sophie Stanton) who constantly philosophises on the world’s woes. Jacques refuses to participate in the play’s merry denouement where bonds are forged; Stanton does a good job at counterbalancing the play’s overwhelming tide of happiness.

As You Like It is a mix of many classic Shakespearean tropes. This production is a great sketch of a various emotional experiences like love, hate, desire, fear, sadness and compassion. It does unfortunately feel overlong and strains attention, but it is well-orchestrated and styled in a unique, fun manner.