Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

As You Like It

William Shakespeare
Sheffield Crucible production
Swan, Stratford
(2006)

Production photo

This is the fifth or sixth production I've seen of As You Like It. It is also the first one I've witnessed which makes sense of the affection in which the play is commonly held. Previously I've found myself reluctantly concurring with Peter Brook's dislike of the much-loved comedy for being "too hearty, like a beer commercial".

In 2000, Michael Grandage, the then director of Sheffield Theatres, came up with what is widely viewed as the finest staging of the play in recent memory. Seven years later, his successor, Sam West, has followed suit with another cracker. As comedian Harry Hill used to say: "What are the chances of that happening?"

One of the benefits of the RSC's Complete Works season, due to finish next month, has been to expose theatregoers familiar with the house style to alternative approaches to the Bard. A thrilling example is Tim Supple's Indian Dream which gave those of us too young to have seen Brook's landmark 1960s staging, a production to which it has been likened, an idea of how utterly fresh and exhilarating it must have been.

It would be over-egging it to say that this staging bears the comparison. What is fair to say, however, is that it is wonderfully fresh, funny and full of fizz. From the off the production draws attention to its own artifice, Jacques wandering on and reminding us that, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". The moon is a large, white and helium-filled balloon which is brought on by Corin the shepherd and is then picked out by a spotlight. Moved to the left of the stage and bathed in golden light it becomes the sun.

The production is shot through with this sense of playfulness. Touchstone, played by Harry Peacock, makes light of what can prove in less deft hands to be so much clay. But where the staging really shines is in the glorious interplay between Rosalind, superbly played by the award-winning Eve Best, most recently seen at the Old Vic in A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Lisa Dillon, also an award-winner, who by rights should both be in line for further nominations. Also meriting the highest praise is Sam Troughton as Orlando who proves equally as adroit. Together, the trio negotiate the lexical thickets with the ease and élan of Astaire.

Of course it is invidious to single out individuals among such an ensemble in which even lesser characters seem fully fleshed and newly-minted. In particular, there's fine work from Patrick Godfrey as Adam/Oliver Martext/Hymen; Olivia Darnley as Celia; Christopher Ravenscroft as Duke Fredrick/Duke Senior and Richard Glaves as Le Beau. Daniel Weyman, with more than a passing resemblance to the young Peter Cook, cuts a somewhat bizarre figure as Monsieur Melancholy, Jacques, in his high heels, but makes the part his own.

Designer Katrina Lindsay opts to set the play in the present in which the court of Duke Senior has been transformed by his usurping brother into a military state. Henchmen in high-buttoned tunics and wraparound sunglasses bristle with menace. Duke Frederic, similarly sporting shades and confined to a wheelchair, which he negotiates with alarming ease, oozes vulpine menace. The switch between scenes in the Forest of Arden and the court are signalled by a slamming sound, as of metallic shutters coming down; a switch to harsh spotlighting and the introduction of reverb which menacingly leaves voices echoing then trailing into silence.

But, inevitably, it is good that triumphs, differences are resolved and forgiven and the arrival of Hymen, god of marriage, played here by Patrick Godrey as a bewigged and avuncular MC, bring the play to a satisfying and joyous conclusion. It's only March but it's already a contender in my books for production of the year.

Philip Seager reviewed this production at the Crucible, Sheffield

Reviewer: Pete Wood