As You Like It

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Production photo

Getting the Forest of Arden onto the same stage as Duke Frederick’s stifling, oppressive court presents a logistic difficulty which once would have been solved with an elaboration of sets, backdrops and lots of leafy bits. The latest RSC take on the contrast (so essential to what As You Like It is all about) sees director Michael Boyd and designer Tom Piper pare the setting down to an elegant minimum and use costume, music and movement to effect the transition between the two ways of life, thought and generally being human.

The play is essentially a pastoral romance (loosely based on Thomas Lodge’s Rosalind), a genre that flourished towards the end of the 16th century. Characters who displayed the patterns of behaviour and sentiment appropriate to contemporary expectations of good breeding and courtly manners could be seen in a new light by their transition to a different, “natural” environment. The contrast wasn’t just between rustic and “educated” manners – in the wild woods the brakes were off and humanity (and nature) could be shown in the raw, dangerous and uncivilised. The game worked both ways, though. Characters who lived the simple life might display an innate gentleness and nobility and their natural environment could have a civilising effect on the products of an “unnatural” over-sophisticated society. This was the equation Shakespeare was juggling, but he managed to make it richer and more complex while also getting a lot more fun out of it.

This production manages to play up the fun by holding it off for as long as possible, going (like the text) for a giddy build-up after a dour start. Initially everything is constricted and redolent of frustration – Charles Aitken plays Oliver de Boys as the precise, calculating head of the family, only goaded into emotion by the pent-up physical and emotional energies of his brother Orlando (JonjoO’Neill). Duke Frederick’s household takes issues of order and hierarchy several steps further, with formalised dance movements emphasised by heavy black garments reminiscent of Spanish court portraiture at its most consciously restrained. In the middle of this the giggling, flirtatious directness of Katy Stephens’ Rosalind and Mariah Gale’s Celia are already emerging as a fountain of irrepressible youthfulness, full of sentiments that can’t be contained by their inflexible surroundings. This production made it crystal clear that something had to give – from the start the lovers are inherently disruptive, the “natural” trying to burst out of the “artificial”.

Life in the Forest starts inauspiciously but the natives are friendly (while Corin the shepherd isn’t exactly a starring role, Geoffrey Freshwater made him exactly the right sort of presence to suggest that the rude country life might be a sound option) and meanwhile the exiled Duke Ferdinand and his followers have convinced themselves that they’re Robin Hood and his Merry Men, in a fresh new world of simple outdoor manliness.

The poignancy of what is in fact their exile wasn’t really acknowledged, but instead the comedy of the situation was played up by making Jaques, the Melancholy Man (a recognised contemporary type that was doubtless a gift for poseurs) into much more of a pivotal character than usual. Yes, of course he gets that most memorable of set-piece speeches, but as played by Forbes Masson he seemed to get far more laughs than usual. He sang, he played the guitar, he had big hair and pointy boots and was redeemed from the ridiculous by his awareness of it, especially in others. You could suddenly see how annoying a companion he might be, which gave the Duke and co a nice chance to be good-humoured in response. The complex chemistry was all there – the man who plays up the two roles of outsider, exiled from a court which he affects anyway to despise, isolated by his own “humours” while nonetheless playing up his isolation as though it was intended for an audience.

And yes, bless him, Mr Masson took it the logical step and played straight out to us, letting us in on the game as only a natural comic can afford to do. It was a generous gesture to make this sort of space for a characterisation that played along the very edge of being bigger than the production would hold. It paid off by making Duke Ferdinand’s forest court feel genuinely relaxed, a flexible grouping where this level of eccentricity could be taken on board with a smile.

The girl-to-boy transformation was lightly assumed (as Ganymede Rosalind was an adolescent pose-striker cutting a suitably callow dash) and the comic rustic turns were all played to full effect with the occasional unexpected bonus (Audrey getting married in a white mini-skirt and stilettos, Sir Oliver Martext brandishing a flaming cross.) And of course there was a dance and, rather less expectedly, a final speech sung by Rosalind. If for no other reason, this would certainly be notable as the As You Like It where a real (dead) rabbit was skinned on stage, but even that innovation pales beside the memory of Forbes Masson shamelessly elevating Jaques into the star of the show.

Kevin Quarmby reviewed this production in Stratford. It was also reviewed in 2011 at The Roundhouse by Philip Fisher.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson

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