‘As You Like It’ review: ‘unambitious’ yet ‘well-acted’

By Ben Clark

Although this was a pretty unambitious take on Shakespeare’s well-loved pastoral comedy, there was still plenty to commend. It was funny (at times), reasonably well-acted, and took place in a beautifully-decorated location. And yet…

In her director’s note, Molly Byford outlines two ways of looking at the play. ‘The first,’ she writes, ‘is that the play is a standard comedy; it starts in conflict, contains disguises and romance and fools, and it ends with a characteristic Shakespearean wedding.’ Byford is right to identify – and reject – this oversimplified reading of the play. She then proceeds to offer her own take on the play, highlighting its gender-bending and the role of Jaques as a mouthpiece for musings on human mortality. Though I disagree with her contention that the play’s core message is ‘love transcends gender’ – I think people are often too keen to see Shakespeare as “woke” – I do agree with her assessment of Jaques as a key figure in the play. It is a shame, with that in mind, that the play’s most well-known speech, Jaques’ ‘All the world’s a stage…’ was delivered facing the wrong way.

people are often too keen to see Shakespeare as “woke”

This brings me onto a broader issue. The play’s blocking is rendered especially difficult by the physical space in which it is performed. Leech Hall, in St John’s, is very capacious, something which the performers try to make the most of. On the whole they are successful. Using one end of the hall to represent the court, and the other to represent the forest, is a good decision. The difficulties are caused by the unusual seating arrangement. Chairs are positioned in parallel rows on either side of a central raised platform. This means that at times – most notably when Jaques is addressing Duke Senior and co. – lines are addressed in the opposite direction to the audience. This is a shame because it really detracts from a few key moments.

Jaques’ characterisation is interesting. Sam Richards plays him as very affected, which I actually quite liked, although I did find that his tendency to leave huge pauses between every word started to grate towards the end.

The play’s blocking is rendered especially difficult by the physical space in which it is performed.

Other performances are more consistently impressive. Ruth Louis deserves credit for her Rosalind, which, bar one or two missed lines, carries the show. Also notable are Richard Dyer, who gives a good Touchstone (the horn is a nice touch); Alice Butler, who does a good job at playing both Dukes, which is by no means an easy task, and Dan Carr, who should have had a bigger part – his take on William in particular was hilarious.

All of it combined to create an immersive experience.

A few more things stood out as worthy of comment. I’ll start with the bad: the costumes. Dressing everyone in suits, especially given that most of the play is set in a forest, is a bit unimaginative. It would have been fine if the suits had been reserved for the court scenes, but I felt a change of costume to represent the transition from court to forest would have been an improvement. Whilst on the subject of costumes, I thought the decision not to give Rosalind even the most rudimentary of disguises was a mistake. I can understand why this might have been done, given that Byford was trying to stress the idea that ‘love transcends gender’, but unfortunately it made a mockery of Rosalind’s revelation that she was in fact Ganymede. Even a small item of clothing, such as one of the flat caps worn by some of the other forest-dwellers, would have averted this.

Now for the good: the set looks great. Big plants, green light, and a view out onto John’s quad suits the play to a T. The birdsong piping out through the speakers is also a subtle addition. All of it combined to create an immersive experience.

In summary, I think this was a thoroughly respectable performance for a first night, with much for its actors and production team to be proud of. Whilst I do have some reservations, I would still recommend going to see it.

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