As You Like It
RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
Literary "experts" usually agree that As You Like It is Shakespeare's happiest play; the fact that towards the end four couples get married is a cause for celebration, even if there are doubts that some of them might not stay together through winter and cold weather.
Despite that, some directors have found it necessary to bring out the darker side of this pastoral comedy, arguably without success. This was the interpretation the last time the RSC performed As You Like It, two years ago in the Swan.
Thankfully Dominic Cooke adopts a fairly straightforward approach to the play: the Forest of Arden becomes a stark, uninviting place for only a short time before the snow stops and the sun shines; hope and jollity quickly replace evil and fear.
The first thing to catch your eye is a massive tree with huge branches which dominates the stage. Rae Smith's design never lets you forget that the forest is where the main action takes place, even though the court scenes help to advance the story.
If As You Like It is to be a success, there has to be chemistry between Rosalind and Celia as well as Rosalind and Orlando. In Cooke's production the three main characters crackle with emotion.
Lia Williams is intensely passionate as Rosalind, with a credible desire for Orlando. She shows an extra dimension when she disguises herself as the youth Ganymede, displaying the mannerisms and mischievousness of a likeable adolescent.
Amanda Harris is a high-spirited, flirtatious Celia, not averse to taking off her glasses when she wants to appeal to the opposite sex.
Barnaby Kay never allows Orlando to degenerate into a wimp, even when he is adorning the trees with his amateurish attempts at love poetry. Kay is particularly impressive when he's unable to speak to Rosalind shortly after their first meeting.
Other triumphs in this production are Jonathan Newth who displays a great contrast between the cruel, vicious Duke Frederick and the kind, gentle Duke Senior; Paul Chahidi, an RSC regular who always impresses in comic roles, as the fool Touchstone; and Joseph Mydell, portraying Jacques with enough melancholy but without making him a manic depressive.
David Rogers, tall and lithe without being particularly muscular, gives us a competent Charles the wrestler in an authentic fight with Orlando in which a garden swing is used to damaging effect.
Cooke's production, though, isn't a total success. John Mackay as Oliver isn't nasty enough at the beginning although he appears comfortable after his transformation into a loving brother; and Caitlin Mottram who performs well as Phebe is too pretty and clean to be a shepherdess. Her looks make a mockery of Rosalind's line: "Sell when you can: you are not for all markets."
The music occasionally seems discordant and the dancing awkward; there could easily have been cuts to reduce the performance time which at nearly three hours is slightly too long.
However, most of the near-capacity audience which included a healthy number of tourists definitely found the evening to their liking.
"As You Like It" runs until October 29th and transfers to the Novello Theatre next March
Reviewer: Steve Orme