Barbican Theatre, London – until 18 January 2020
Guest reviewer: Heather Deacon
The first of three new Royal Shakespeare Company productions kicks off this week with a delightful and especially woke performance of gender-bending romantic comedy As You Like It. Director Kimberley Sykes embraces the playful text with a diverse and tuneful cast so at ease with the text that off-the-cuff moments and audience interaction are plentiful.
The story goes that Duke Senior is exiled to the Forest of Arden by his usurper brother, Duke Frederick. Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, stays behind thanks to her bond with Frederick’s daughter, Celia… that is before Frederick flips out and banishes her after all. Celia joins her, as does their fool Touchstone, but not before disguising themselves. Rosalind becomes Ganymede, the brother to Aliena, Celia’s disguise. Throw in Rosalind’s love Orlando also escaping to the forest to avoid further persecution by his brother, Oliver… farce doth ensue.
Lucy Phelps is farce-in-chief as Rosalind/Ganymede, a bundle of eccentricity and energy as she encourages Orlando to prove his love to Rosalind by wooing Ganymede, all the while struggling to maintain her guise. David Ajao is a brawny Orlando, as passionate as any lovesick youth would be, with a dash of the jovial cheek (a common youthful trait).
The infamous melancholy Jacques, who’s gifted many of the play’s most quoted gems, from “All the world’s a stage” to “A fool! A fool! I met a fool in the forest!” is played with the perfect amount of wise whimsy by Sophie Stanton. Antony Byrne as both Dukes is another absolute tour de force as are Emily Johnstone’s beautiful vocals as Amiens and Le Beau.
The diverse cast of 18 reflects not only age and race but also disabilities, to say nothing of a range of accents that seems to reflect nearly all of the British Isles. It’s a gorgeous way of presenting one of the Bard’s most quoted plays, adding a depth not often achieved in productions drawn from received pronunciation.
The wooden staging seems sparse for most of the first half, with just a patch of grass and a balcony to set the scene, but is soon becomes more of a forest setting. Scenic designer Stephen Brimson Lewis puts his biggest creative stamp on it however in a collaboration with puppetry designer Mervyn Millar producing a disconcertingly overbearing giant puppet of the Goddess Hymen for the final scene.
This is an appropriately enjoyable and charming production of one of Shakespeare’s most loved plays. Looking forward to the rest of the trilogy coming up in the next few weeks.
In repertory at the Barbican until 18 January 2020, then on tourReviewed by Heather DeaconPhoto credit: Topher McGrillis