As You Like It

William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

(2009)

Review by Kevin Quarmby

Touchstone gazes in horror and fascination as the shepherd Corin skins a rabbit for the pot. Cutting and tearing at the flesh, chopping off the head with a menacing cleaver and then tossing the carcase unceremoniously in a waiting bucket, Corin appears, with his everyday rural activity, in stark contrast to the urban sensitivities of the molly-coddled court fool. This moment of cultural confrontation between city-dweller and country shepherd sums up the underlying tensions of Shakespeare’s fascinating play.

To accommodate the RSC’s latest offering, As You Like It, the Courtyard stage has been transformed by designer Tom Piper into minimalist bleached-wood world, its panelled slatted-pine backdrop evoking more a Japanese tea room than a fanciful French court. Into this bleak and clinical space arrives Orlando, a testosterone-driven youth whose lowly upbringing cannot hide his aristocratic heritage as youngest son of the disgraced Sir Rowland de Boys.

What might signal a very dour beginning to a delightful play actually allows the narrative and characters to unfold with an immediacy and a clarity which are the hallmark of any Michael Boyd production. The court of the usurping Duke Frederick is frequented by an assortment of Elizabethan stereotypes, all dressed in sumptuous black costumes, their faces as white and bleached as the boards on which they tread.

Touchstone, the court fool, whose own black costume is more designer straitjacket than multi-coloured motley, sports a silent-movie black eye and ridiculous Elizabethan ruff. Clomping around in Little Titch music-hall shoes, his hair as wild as any mad professor’s, Richard Katz’s tall, lanky Touchstone commands the stage, injecting hilarious humour into a notoriously difficult comic role.

Touchstone is forced to join those young ladies of court, Rosalind and Celia, as they escape in disguise to live in the Forest of Arden. Rosalind’s father is already there with his own merry band of followers, all escaping the wrath of Sandy Neilson’s menacingly dangerous Duke Frederick. The old Duke Senior, renamed Duke Ferdinand for this production, is unaware that his daughter Rosalind is, like him, in exile. Disguises and love sonnets, rustic lust and fireside songs, all add to a narrative which is overtly comic, though underlyingly tragic in its potential. If, as is presumed, As You Like It was performed in 1599, it would have appeared a very avant garde play indeed.

Jonjo O’Neill’s Orlando is both sensitive and dangerous. O’Neill is the perfect romantic hero, full of bluster and bravado, but with a vulnerability and charm which makes his love for Rosalind all the more believable. No wonder he falls head over heels for Katy Stephens’s Rosalind. No weak and feeble maiden, Stephens makes her Rosalind part-Amazon princess as she dons her simple disguise. With her Douglas Fairbanks moustache and rolled-sock prosthetic trouser-filler, Stephens adds to the play’s music-hall theme, conjuring a male impersonator like Vesta Tilley in this subtly masculinized role.

Rosalind is joined on her adventure by Celia, played with narcoleptic glee by Mariah Gale. A child of court, Celia is ever ready to slumber as the world hurries by. In this state, she dreams of her angry father, of the hunting and slaying of deer, and ultimately her own eventual capture not by her enemies, but by another son of old Sir Rowland who instantly captures her heart.

O’Neill, Stephens and Gale are supported by a superb cast. Special mention must be made of Clarence Smith as the exiled Duke Frederick, whose joy at being reunited with his daughter Rosalind is only matched by his Stoic resolution in the face of another woodland winter. Similarly, Geoffrey Freshwater’s Corin is wonderful, especially when expressing resignation at the loss of his humble land and livelihood.

Freshwater is comic feed to James Tucker’s Silvius, whose own problems pall into insignificance when faced with wooing the intractable Phoebe, played brilliantly by Christine Entwhistle. The other rural beauty is, of course, the goatherd Audrey, lust-object of Touchstone. Sophie Russell is as enticing as she is mired in the grime of her trade. The aroma of goat has never had more sex appeal.

Into this group is thrust the malcontented Jaques. Forbes Masson gives a passable impression of a true rock-and-roll god as he wanders the forest, guitar slung round his neck, singing his plaintive songs in a delicious falsetto which resonates through the Courtyard rafters. Wild-haired and sunken-eyed, Masson’s Jaques adds that touch of pained reality to an otherwise fanciful tale. Pompous and opinionated, vain and arrogant, this Jaques is destined to shun the company of any who find happiness in adversity. Masson rules the stage as only a true malcontent can.

The RSC has struck gold in the Forest of Arden. Young and old will be delighted with this wondrous production. All credit to Michael Boyd for uniting a great cast and creative team and transporting the Courtyard audience for what seems the briefest of moments into a magical, mythical world of fantasy, conflict and love.

Gail-Nina Anderson reviewed this production in Newcastle. It was also reviewed in 2011 at The Roundhouse by Philip Fisher.