In the National Theatre’s latest figuration of As You Like It, Shakespeare’s most well-loved greenworld comedy becomes a pastoral retreat from the bright corporate drills of modern life, into a greyscale forest given colour by the characters that populate its purlieus and provinces.
The Duke’s court is envisaged by designer Lizzie Clachan as a garishly carpeted office with a distinctly budget airline feel to the colour scheme and pot plants. The neatly uniformed team of employees drum out their tasks with comedically synchronised choreography, bringing the sixteenth century drama firmly into contemporary life. It is all a little busy, especially as a backdrop for Orlando’s opening speech, which is delivered mostly as a soliloquy (to little effect except that I wondered where Adam had got to). The boxing scene is over-performed, verging on ridiculous. Too much is made of the entrances of heavyweight Charles, bedecked in blue and gold lycra, and Orlando in Nike gym kit, with the whole cast of employees cheering and thumping in anticipation. There was nothing believable or enticing about the fight scene.
That is all forgiven, though, when the corporate world is whisked away, quite literally, upon Celia and Rosalind’s banishment. All of the furniture is dramatically and precariously flown up on wires to become a stark Forest of Arden, in a set piece procession of tables and chairs. Clachan’s fiercely inventive design threatens to steal the show, especially considering the mixed quality of the performances.
Fortunately, the remarkable pairing of Rosalie Craig as a mature but charming Rosalind and Patsy Ferran as her admiring, wide-eyed cousin Celia redeems the odd sticky moment. Rosalind and Celia are the two young women at the heart of this escape to the country, who flee the tyrannical control of Celia’s father for the freedoms of the forest. They are usually cast as closest friends from the off, and of equal age. Here instead, Rosalind is a professional young woman who we meet first wearing slick business-wear, and Celia is a girlish little thing in a peter pan collared smock dress, with naturally wavy hair. Ferran plays the latter with brilliant cutesy mannerisms and Craig excels in making Rosalind a fearless modern woman. Indeed, it’s even insinuated that Celia merely at first pays attention to Rosalind when the latter pledges to her her father’s wealth. She seems in the city to treat the younger Celia with some exasperation and dutiful endurance, rather than real friendship. This allows for real development to their relationship in the creative space of reinvention the forest provides.
The soundscape created a cappella by an ensemble (named a ‘choir’ in the programme) is just one way in which the design of this production feels an utterly natural progression from the text. Humour is brought into even the gentlest scenes, with the foresters’ rendition of the melancholy Rough Weather being accompanied by Jacques, who performs an interpretative dance, and finishes it off with a verse of his own like a bad X-Factor audition. Fra Fee has just the right richness to his voice to carry the forest songs with moving conviction. The sheep – a flock made up of cast members in wooly jumpers – are everything. I’d see the show again just to laugh once more at their antics. There are wonderful touches too to the costumes – Rosalind and Celia arrive in the forest with the towering Touchstone in tow absurdly carrying their Cath Kidston weekend bags.
Director Polly Findlay’s return to the National following Treasure Island earlier this year is an amusing, modern reinvention of As You Like It which manages to capture the spirit of sisterly friendship and young love in truly entertaining, but not hugely memorable, style.
As You Like It plays at the National Theatre until 25 February 2016. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo by Johan Persson.