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Review: As You Like It (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC)

Review by Raphael Kohn

Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, I think it’s fair to say that As You Like It is one that has stood the test of time well. It’s not as culture-shaping as Romeo and Juliet, granted, but as a frequently revisited and revised play, it’s one that often presents a significant challenge to directors as they seek new ways to revitalise and rejuvenate this old masterpiece. No stranger to bringing new perspectives to Shakespeare’s works, the RSC has sought to breathe new life into As You Like It with an utterly charming and wonderfully irresistible production, with a sublimely cast group of veteran actors at the fore.

Exploring a romance between Orlando and Rosalind in the forest of Arden, As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s most classic romantic comedies, involving gender-swapping chaos bringing the characters closer together as Rosalind disguises herself as a boy in order to coach Orlando into wooing herself. And while this sounds ridiculous on paper, it’s heartily enjoyable to watch live, especially in this creative production.


What sets this so far apart from any productions of As You Like It ever to grace the stages of the UK before is the casting and central concept from director Omar Elerian. These characters, all in their youth and usually played by actors whose age more closely resembles the characters’, are performed in this production by a cast of veteran actors, most of whom are above the age of 70. And with this change comes great charm – a moving, nostalgic energy fills the room to the point that it becomes pretty impossible not to smile for much of the show. The show is played as an ‘actors’ reunion’, in which most of the actors play characters they played in their youth (with four parts played by younger performers as script-in-hand ‘understudies’), forming a ‘play-within-a-play’, to give the casting an ‘explanation’ for its concept.

To fulfil this concept, director Elerian and dramaturg Rebecca Latham have heavily edited Shakespeare’s original text to reflect their ideas. Performers interject with modern English ‘ad-libs’ as they organise themselves in their reunion, reminding each other which parts they are playing, or feeding each other lines. The script is also abridged - a welcome edit to Shakespeare’s lengthy text - which ups the pace of the production and keeps the energy bright.


Bringing Rosalind to life is the talented Geraldine James, who injects her character with a spry energy while retaining the wisdom of her age. Her age only adds to her knowledgeable and sparkling performance, with a twinkle in her eye. She performs the role with expert panache - indeed, it’s hard to imagine the part ever being better played by a younger performer. She is complemented by Michael Bertenshaw’s Oliver, who begins the show with an introduction to the audience spoken in modern English and Malcolm Sinclair’s Orlando, who bring their characters to life with wit and charm. Christopher Saul, who is the alternate for the part of Jaques with Oliver Cotton and was the one performing on press night, delivered a particularly moving performance of Shakespeare’s famous ‘seven stages’ speech, with reflective nostalgia bringing a completely new and refreshing, if even more melancholy than normal, take on the part.

Yet, it is James Hayes’ Touchstone who truly brings the comedy to the show. At each entrance, each time in a more preposterous outfit, Hayes introduces himself to the audience with ‘James Hayes, classical actor’ with a cheeky smile and a knowing wink, and launches into his genuinely hilarious performance. Never taking himself too seriously, his performance is so much more than the character’s ‘clownish’ origin, bringing humour but also heart to the stage.


The most surprising performances come from the four younger performers, who carry scripts in hand for much of the production. Within the concept of the production, they step into the roles of the performers who were unable to join the company for the reunion - and are introduced as such at the beginning. All four of them - Tyreke Leslie, Mogali Masuku, Rose Wardlaw and Hannah Bristow - are excellent performers in their own rights, but it is their interactions with the older performers that make their performances truly special. Seamlessly integrating themselves into the narrative and never overpowering the older performers with their youthful energy, they are brilliantly cast in their roles.

Noticeably, with Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s bare stage conjuring a rehearsal room on stage, the lighting and sound cues are almost non-existent. Lit from above with beam lighting and gentle spotlights to immerse us into the setting of a rehearsal room, the play begins with the house lights still on full, which are turned down so slowly throughout the first 15 minutes that one barely notices it until one realises they are sat in the darkened auditorium. Indeed, the few moments in which the lighting changes are so striking with Jackie Shemesh’s intelligent lighting choices that they stick in mind like vivid landscapes, especially when paired with Will Gregory’s folky, rocky score that punctuates the production, especially with its stunning act one closer.


And yet, for its many strengths, this production struggles slightly with its own concept. Although a genius idea to perform the play as an actors’ reunion, leaning into the metatheatricality of the writing, the production places so much focus on the concept and the reunion idea that, at times, the story itself of As You Like It becomes lost in the concept and the audience’s attention is drawn to the actors’ interactions, rather than the characters’. This isn’t to say it’s a problem for everyone - I personally loved just watching these performers have the time of their lives on the gorgeous stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but those who want to see the story of As You Like It play out on stage may find themselves losing the Shakespearean plot itself.

With an abundance of charm and plenty of wit, the Royal Shakespeare Company has once again brought their signature originality to the Bard’s most famous romantic comedy. Combining the winning elements of a talented cast, creative and thoughtful direction and an abundance of charm, this is a delightful production that the Bard himself would be smiling down upon - he’d like it very much indeed.


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

As You Like It plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 5th August 2023. Tickets are available from https://www.rsc.org.uk/as-you-like-it/tickets


Photos by Ellie Kurttz

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