As You Like It

14 February - 31 August 2019

William Shakespeare | RSC, Stratford | Directed by Kimberley Sykes.

Rosalind, the banished lovesick cross-dresser in 'As You Like It', is one of the great female roles in Shakespeare. Lucy Phelps rises to the challenge, delivering an enchanting and love-affirming central performance in the latest production of this wonderfully strange romantic comedy to hit Stratford.

This 'relatively plotless' play is dominated by conversation and speeches. But don't let that put you off. It's romantic, riotous fun and contains more songs than any other play in the great Bard's canon. The story opens in the controlled and ordered court of Duke Frederick, who has exiled his older brother Duke Senior. Rosalind, the exiled Duke's daughter remains at court to be companion to Celia, the usurping Duke Frederick's daughter. Still with me? Meanwhile, Orlando is being persecuted by his older brother Oliver after the death of their father. Orlando earns the love of Rosalind in a wrestling match which he unexpectantly wins. Cue banishment, cross-dressing disguises and an escape to the Forest of Arden for romantic entanglements and barely credible resolutions.

Director Kimberley Sykes' decision not to set the play in any specific period or place creates a timeless quality to this production. Jaques' famous 'seven ages of man' speech asserts that 'all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players' and this theatricality sits at the heart of the vision here. "We are exposing, celebrating and declaring in a very honest way that we're here making theatre," said Sykes. "That we're on a stage in front of an audience telling a story." It works beautifully in creating an intimate connection between the cast and the audience, not an easy feat sat indoors in semi-darkness.

Stephen Brimson Lewis' set design makes no attempt to recreate a realistic court or forest. Instead, Arden Forest is conjured in the imaginations of the audience, Willed (forgive the pun) into existence through language as it would have been on the early modern stage in Shakespeare's time. A neat disk of astroturf, presenting amusing difficulties for the high-heeled women of the court to navigate, nicely suggests the control of nature which characterises Duke Frederick's artificial and enclosed court. The transition from oppressive court to idealised pastoral idyll reveals the mechanics of the backstage area of the theatre. Celia's comment "I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it" rings pleasingly true for the audience. We quickly find that we are more than willing to waste our time in it too.

Lucy Phelps and David Ajao joyfully convey the shy, excited, awkward and thrilling nature of love at first sight as central couple Rosalind and Orlando. The physical attraction between them is palpable. They move you. It's impossible to resist. Combining boyish charm with mischievous strength, Phelps is a moving and pixie-like Rosalind who somehow manages to be both sexually confident and timid at the same time when she transforms into her male counterpart, Ganymede, and teaches Orlando how to woo. David Ajao is puppy-faced, dough-eyed and doleful, capturing the besotted Orlando's obsession in a performance which had the audience on-side before he spoke a word. Casting a black actor in the role of the pitiful poet and forlorn lover also worked well in further suggesting the outsider status of this shunned younger brother.

Doubling as both Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, Antony Byrne morphs convincingly from volatile anger to fair-minded contentment in the roles of these contrasting brothers. The tight bonds of female friendship are powerfully conveyed in the closeness between Rosalind and Sophie Khan Levy's devoted Celia. Skyes' gender-blind casting of Jacques (a gently melancholic Sophie Stanton), fits perfectly with this modernised interpretation which also substitutes suffering shepherd Silvius with Sylvia, leading to a same-sex nuptial at the play's neat, if unbelievable, conclusion.

Sandy Grierson's Touchstone is a strutting, yellow-checked pencil-thin trousered delight. A sort of cross between Rupert the bear and an ageing rocker. The most recent Globe production of this play cast a deaf actor in the role of Celia and it is pleasing to see such inclusive casting on the Stratford stage; Charlotte Arrowsmith's goatherd Audrey and her signing lover William (Tom Dawze) bringing comedic realism to the love-crazed proceedings.

This is a joyful production with something for Shakespeare lovers and newcomers alike. It ranges across such a mingle-mangle (the director's words, not mine!) of periods and styles you never quite know what you're watching: panto, stand-up comedy, dance, improvisation, clowning, singing, romance or farce? It's a heady, intoxicating and romantic mix-up which works, leaving you with a dazed, slightly confused, but beaming smile spreading across your face. After several underwhelming recent productions on the RSC main stage, here's hoping this 'As You Like It' marks a return to form in the birthplace of the man himself.

'As You Like It' is running at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 31 August 2019 and is on tour at various venues across the UK from 25 September 2019to 4 April 2020. Live cinema broadcast on 17 April 2019.

As You Like It