As You Like It

William Shakespeare
Swan, Stratford
(2003)

When the RSC stages one of the most popular plays in the canon in the Swan rather than the main house, you know you're in for something different, something experimental. That's exactly what you get with Gregory Thompson's directorial debut for the company.

As You Like It has been running for three months but I've only just been able to get along to see it. Thompson's original vision has been altered since the first performances. Gone is the complicated set featuring a wooden ramp which levelled out to create the wrestling ring near the beginning of the play. And the singing of the 23rd Psalm right at the end has, for whatever reason, been jettisoned.

But even though the play has been shortened from three-and-a-half hours to two hours fifty minutes, it still seems too long. So much for "two hours' traffic of our stage".

The main drawback seems to be the difficulty in distinguishing the court from the Forest of Arden. This is particularly evident when Michael Hadley changes from the banished Duke Senior into Duke Frederick. He admirably adopts a different persona but he could quite easily still be in the forest.

Arden is, indeed, hard to understand: a windy, snow-covered place one minute, a supposed hotbed of romance the next. The imagination has to work overtime.

The most imaginative part of the play is when the actors become trees onto which Orlando sticks his love notes to Rosalind. Shortly afterwards the actors drop onto all fours and start bleating as Corin's sheep. It sounds crazy but the audience loved it. However, some seemed bemused when Celia, alias Aliena, becomes a shot deer and is hoisted aloft on the shoulders of one of the Duke's men.

The sum of some of the parts though is greater than the whole. Martin Hutson is enraged at his treatment by his eldest brother and passionate but never soppy as Orlando; Naomi Frederick is a feisty, mischievous Celia; and Nina Sosanya is a lucid Rosalind, although perhaps she could have been more head over heels in love and on the verge of giving herself away as Ganymede.

John Killoran (Touchstone) is amiable and extremely energetic; David Fielder is a crotchety but likeable Jacques; and Tim Barlow a marvellous Adam. There is also excellent support from Daniel Brocklebank (Silvius), Natasha Gordon (Phebe) and Patricia Gannon (Audrey).

Yet there are other merely adequate interpretations which bring down the overall impression. Aaron Neil (Oliver) is not nasty enough to Orlando in the early scenes and Bradley Freegard is not menacing enough as Charles the wrestler. The wrestling bout comes to an unsatisfactory, premature end when Charles hurts his back!

This version of As You Like It is competent enough but it lacks passion, jollity and the feelgood factor which the play needs and deserves.

"As You Like It" runs until November 8th

Reviewer: Steve Orme