Review: As You Like It

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Shakespeare was deliberately sparse with his stage directions, to facilitate a breadth of interpretations, ranging from the orthodox to the avant-garde, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s summer 2023 production of ‘As You Like It’ at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, decidedly leans into the latter approach. Directed by Omar Elerian, with a cast lead by Geraldine James as Rosalind and Malcolm Sinclair as Orlando, this production, commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the First Folio this year, clearly aims to bring something new and original. This approach is foregrounded from the beginning, with a stark, pared-back setting (designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita) replicating a rehearsal room, with a dozen chairs and assorted desks and tables strewn across the stage, lit by glaring white lamps, with photographs, posters and other paraphernalia lining the back wall.

We are told that many of the cast are reprising roles from a 1978 production, less a few who have passed on, one of them represented, respectfully, by an overcoat hanging on a chair, to whom the other actors occasionally address lines. There is certainly a pervasive sense of poignancy and nostalgia about this production, working its way into the lines through the expert execution of this veteran cast, with a gleaming eye or lingering smile representing a lost friend, or a remembrance of their young career. These emotions must either be genuine, or else fashioned through seamless, masterful acting. Regardless, their performances are inspiring and rich with craft. Four younger actors, drafted in to fill gaps in the original ensemble, bring tenderness and wistfulness in another way – they embody the next generation, the mantle passing, cyclically, from the old to the new.

There are numerous humorous scenes, but the need to balance this production’s reflective sensitivities with comedic elements can sometimes bring an unwanted tension. Deliberately stiff fight scenes, in which septuagenarian cast members spar while hunched over, unite with the forgetting of lines being played for laughs. There are also times when the metafiction of this production grates, with the novel concept of setting the play’s events in a rehearsal context at times diverging too far from traditional renditions of this play. Indeed, we are left often yearning for the whimsical, enchanting forest of Arden, so tantalisingly beyond reach in this production, the utilitarian nature of the setting at times leaving the magic, transportive effect of a Shakespeare play behind. All these somewhat blunt approaches to memory and ageing are, however, in large part made up for by the deft, rip-roaring comic improv throughout – masterfully delivered by Ewart James Walters, as William the shepherd and Charles the wrestler, and James Hayes, as Touchstone the court jester – which if anything sharpens and renews Shakespeare’s verse.

It is only as the play approaches its conclusion that the forest of Arden, hidden throughout but always there, like a ghost of memory, finally appears – in spectacular fashion. The austere back wall rises to reveal the glorious forest of Arden behind, with towering oaks draped with vines and moss, floating wraithlike in an ethereal haze of white mist. The cast begin to explore this newly-revealed forest scene, the actors lost amidst the trees. And then rich golden light fills the stage, and Geraldine James steps forwards to deliver the final, resounding Epilogue, expertly rewritten (by Robin Soans) in a subtle but stirring manner. In that moment, in a mesmerising burst of intense emotion and sensitivity, the play finally reaches the heights towards which it had aspired throughout. It is utterly sublime. And then the curtain falls.

Image Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

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