Review: As You Like It, Barbican

There’s much to admire in Kimberley’s Sykes’s production of Shakespeare’s lively comedy, although something seems to be lurking behind the scenes in this Forest of Arden that never quite reveals itself. Disguised within the façade of audience participation, sprightly lovers and a series of gorgeous seasonal set and lighting designs by Stephen Brimson Lewis, Bretta Gerecke and Mervyn Millar, lies a tragic melancholy that occasionally presents itself but never quite affects the overall mood.

Rosalind and Celia, played by cousinly, affectionate duo Lucy Phelps and Sophie Khan Levy, live a life of corporate glitz and glam, as the pair lounge upon a large circle of grass-like carpet. Banished by Duke Frederick, Levy joins her cousin with hardly a pause for thought. The escape becomes an adventure, almost, but also an escape from the violent threats that Antony Byrne’s childish Duke exhibits. The forest becomes a place for liberty, rather than a punishing banishment.

As we’re transported to the forest, the theatricalities somewhat deconstruct, the house lights brightening up for much of the performance, and costume rails finding themselves most visible on stage. Asides on occasion acknowledge the audience, and a few moments see spectators interacted with or brought to the stage. Rather than mere observers with a secret contract between us and our disguised Rosalind, we make a pact with virtually the whole company. What I’m afraid becomes of this with regards to Rosalind’s disguise is an Orlando that believes her Ganymede impersonation about as much as we do.

The famous scene where Rosalind in disguise teaches Orlando how to impress is underplayed, subtly suggesting that the focus is elsewhere, but we never find out where that is. And whilst David Ajao’s Orlando gazes with his tongue weighted towards the floor in his initial infatuation, the love returned from Rosalind seems half-hearted; there’s barely a yearning for a revelation and it’s hard to believe that the romance – of any of the final couples – will last beyond the end of the season.

Sophie Stanton’s Jacques is depressed and fed up. So much so, she hardly makes it to the stage on time, an initial metatheatrical break as ‘Ms. Stanton to the stage’ sounds over a tannoy. Stanton feels like a Jacques from a different world, an exhausted one, letting the children play in frivolous festivity whilst the real work is done behind the scenes, perhaps in a world pained by lost love and battle. Jacques’s exit is swift and moved on from quickly. The second appearance of the glitter ball feels ironic in the atmosphere.

I think there is thoughtful nuance threaded through the elements and plot points, but it’s done so subtly that the dots don’t quite form a path towards the final image. And I can’t help but wonder if my thoughts on Jacques’ role in the world of this play are based on intentions from the company, or rather reading a jump too deep into a message that isn’t really there.

The play risks falling into blandness, a lack of attachment to a single theme. Luckily this is saved, partly by its design of luxury wooden flooring, of blues and greens that form shadows against the main wooden set piece, and a leading performance from Phelps that has a charm impossible to resist. She practically spirals through the space, taking us along on the whirling ride, even though we’re not always completely sure why we’re there. It’s a performance that tightly holds the whole thing together, and combines a collage of well constructed elements in a production which feels whole as a shape, albeit a little empty in meaning. 

As You Like It is playing the Barbican until 18 January. For more information and tickets, visit the Barbican website