I’ll be honest, As You Like It isn’t my favourite Shakespeare.
It’s a lot of fevered lovers in a Forest (but without the magic and fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the obligatory cross-dressing (but without the witty word-play of Twelfth Night) and the motivation of the evil Duke who tears apart budding lovers Rosalind and Orlando by banishing Rosalind from his kingdom is a bit flimsy.
Nevertheless, others love it, and it does contain some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, so it’s quite a surprise that it has been over 30 years since this play was last shown at the National Theatre.
And director Polly Findlay has taken the opportunity to create a fresh, modern revival . And a chief component in this is the dynamic set design from Lizzie Clachan.
The Duchy is a modern corporate office, the workers within obedient and compliant. They are diligent, risk-averse and never stray from the rule set down by Duke Frederick (Leo Wringer). But it’s the set transformation into the Forest of Arden, the principal location of the play, that wows.
I’ve never witnessed a scenery change get a round of applause before but, then, this is very impressive – the office furniture is dragged up into the air, and dangling legs of the tables and chairs transform into the low hanging branches of the Forest’s trees.
It’s one hell of a sight. So the problem with the production, therefore, isn’t with the visuals
The writing demands craziness – it’s about how maddening and illogical love is. And that is captured in some great moments, such as the duel between Orlando (Joe Bannister) and Charles (Leon Annor) being a full-blown WWF-esque wrestling match, with Leon Annor shining as a showboating wrestler. And there is a great scene when the large cast portray a large flock of sheep herded together in the Forest.
But, sadly though, this energy isn’t sustained
The central challenge is with the production’s leads. Individually they are great – Joe Bannister is a sweet, engaging, bumbling fool and Rosalie Craig is a spirited Rosalind. But together, well, there’s nothing there. The chemistry is so lacking that it’s just unbelievable that these two are caught up in an all-consuming passion.
Rosalie never convinces that the insanity of love has spun her head right round, that Orlando truly consumes her every waking thought. She never once seems to lose her cool, we never glimpse a chink in her armour. And, in comparison, Joe seems positively cowed by Rosalie, even terrified, rather than enthralled by her.
However they are somewhat saved by stellar performances in the supporting cast who really do capture the absurdity and foolishness in the writing.
Patsy Ferran is a gem as the enthusiastic but somewhat cynical Celia, Rosalind’s best friend and daughter to the Duke. Her “I can’t believe I’ve been stuck with this lot” expressions are a perfectly witty counterpoint to the madness in the Forest, as is Paul Chahidi’s maudlin Jaques. His palpable sarcasm stops his character from being too morose and dragging the production down. It’s well employed.
Of the many lovers in the Forest enwrapped in their frenetic games of courtship and rejection, Siobhan McSweeney catches the eye as Audrey. She positively shines, lifting the production every time she skips on to the stage. She is a delight, and her warmth and sparky wit perfectly pitched.
So, this production is a bit of a glass half-empty, glass half empty one. Overall, I think I’m going to go with more of a glass half full as I admire the risk taken.
Director Polly Findlay’s vision is bold and fearless and I’d certainly rather see a play that takes risks with Shakespeare, even if they don’t all work out, than to sit through a sedate, traditional production (I’m looking at you here, Branagh).
National Theatre, London to March 5, 2016
Image Credits: All images from National Theatre.
- As You Like It. John Ramm (Duke Senior). Image Johan Persson.
- Rosalie Craig (Rosalind), Joe Bannister (Orlando) As You Like It. Image Johan Persson.
- A scene from As You Like It, centre Joe Bannister(Orlando),Leon Annor (Charles). Image by Johan Persson.
- Siobhan McSweeney (Audrey), Mark Benton(Touchstone) As You Like It. Image by Johan Persson.