The advertisements for this production of As You Like It extend the mysterious invitation to “come into the forest” and to change our “state of mind”. When the play transfers to the Forest of Arden in the second act, it is possibly with some initial confusion that we discover we actually are the forest.
Kimberley Sykes’ adaptation of the play, containing plausibly Shakespeare’s most famous metatheatrical lines, is obsessed with barriers. Specifically, with breaking them down. It is possible however, that its essence, which is arguably not gender fluidity or the potentially ambiguous interaction between actor and audience, is occasionally overpowered in favour of vogue sexual politics.
Happily, this production is nonetheless a success on many levels. As Rosalind, Lucy Phelps is very sharp. She shapes a heroine who is cerebral and wise far beyond her years, while imbuing her with a playful and mischievous side that seems to go right over Orlando’s (David Ajao) lovesick head. The pair have a great dynamic and their exchanges provide several comic moments of slightly klutzy young love, as well as evoking our sympathy with warnings that circumstance might keep the two apart forever.
The only duo surpassing Phelps and Ajao on the comedy front is Sandy Grierson and Patrick Brennan as funny-man Touchstone and semi-ascetic shepherd Corin. Grierson, a cross between Noel Fielding and the Bard himself, dressed head to toe in Gucci’s Fall/Winter 2019 collection, deserves huge credit here; his verbal and physical antics might be the highlight of this production.
Elsewhere, Sykes’ seems slightly less assured. The metatheatrical is certainly present in the text of As You Like It (but then, isn’t it in so many of Shakespeare’s works?) so perhaps to re-imagine the role of the audience by ‘casting’ them as the trees of Arden makes sense in a way, and yet when the house lights are brought (and kept) up, it feels a bit gimmicky. How unusual to be able to make out an audience member all the way on the other side of the stage – this is all very avant-garde – but that’s sort of where it ends. In addition, calling people up before the interval to hold up pieces of paper spelling “ROSALIND” is a little superfluous. Ajao’s performance is good enough for us to have already clocked that Orlando is really rather keen.
As Jacques (re-gendered to be female), Sophie Stanton is very strong – a world-weary outsider who gives us the impression she’s seen it all plenty of times before – but, being keen to push the play’s meta-elements, one might wonder why Sykes didn’t do more with the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech. Like many of Hamlet’s lines, the speech has practically passed into the English-speaking cultural and philosophical tradition, so there’s no doubting that it’s hard to come up with a dynamic way to present it that won’t feel like a cliché. Still, the section doesn’t come across as being quite as fresh as other parts of the production.
Unlike some of Shakespeare’s plays, there is good sense in a gender-fluid As You Like It. Rosalind’s cross-dressing is the perfect foil for a socially conscious director to make some powerful changes to the representation of gender in theatre. Perhaps Rosalind and Orlando could be gay or lesbian. This might bring another dimension to the ambiguous way in which their love reflects the close friendship of their fathers, as well as opening up a number of possibilities when Rosalind dresses as a different gender, both in intent and in Orlando’s reaction. As it is, Sykes is fairly conservative on this front and turning Silvius into Silvia (although Amelia Donkor plays with aplomb) neither makes a clear point nor goes unnoticed (as could have been the point). Instead, it might be felt an unnecessary complication to what is already a far from transparent comedy.
This version of As You Like It is not perfect. However, its potential problems are mostly conceptual and they do not get in the way of it being a highly enjoyable production, complete with very strong individual and ensemble performances.
As You Like It is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Shakespeare Company website.