As You Like It

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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Start of rehearsal: Maureen Beattie (Celia), James Hayes (Touchstone) and Geraldine James (Rosalind) Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
Malcolm Sinclair (Orlando) Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
James Hayes (Touchstone) and Cleo Sylvestre (Audrey) Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
David Fielder (Silvius) Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
Wrestling for seniors: Malcolm Sinclair (Orlando) and Ewart James Walters (Charles) Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
James Hayes (Touchstone) Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
Celia Bannerman (Phoebe) Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
James Hayes (Touchstone) and Geraldine James (as Ganymede) Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
Geraldine James (as Ganymede), Maureen Beattie (as Aliena) with Tyreke Leslie (Adam) Credit: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

It’s like A Bunch of Amateurs but played by some of the best pros in the business. What a delight.

The actors stroll on, as if surprised by there being an audience to watch a run-through in the rehearsal room, before one of them announces that this will be a reunion of a cast that first performed the play 45 years ago.

Only the original Adam, who would now be 114, is missing, we are told, and is played in part by his empty cloak. That whole story is an invention, as it happens, but who cares? Especially if it’s an excuse for the wonderful Geraldine James to play Rosalind, making her RSC debut at the age of 72.

The production is the marvellous result of teamwork between director Omar Elerian, dramaturg Rebecca Latham and the cast, enhanced by Jackie Shemesh’s lighting effects. The script has been skinned, but not butchered, and dressed up with tasty titbits.

The tone is playful, often in self-mockery: dressed in a ridiculous costume, playing the fool, this Touchstone announces himself dolefully—"James Hayes. Classical actor."

Geraldine James is terrific, drooping like melted butter as she falls in love at first sight of Malcolm Sinclair’s Orlando, victor over Ewart James Walters’s Charles in a wrestling contest amusingly choreographed for the over-60s. James is energetic, demonstrative, appealing—and her final appearance, magnificently arrayed, is almost enough to bring out spontaneous applause.

Maureen Beattie joins the spirit of things as a first-class Celia, muttering a back-of-the-stage "Oh No!" at Rosalind’s frankly absurd proposal to play Orlando’s mistress while still disguised as the boy Ganymede.

In a cast of a certain age, Michael Bertenshaw as Oliver, Robin Soans as bad / good Dukes Senior / Frederick, David Fielder as a charming, rustic Silvius, Celia Bannerman as his feisty Phoebe, the young Tyreke Leslie as Adam (when not played by the cloak) and Cleo Sylvestre as ‘bawdry’ Audrey, as Hayes mischievously names her, all contribute to the fun.

But nowhere does the streamlined text better serve than in the role of Jaques, played as effectively as I can ever remember by Christopher Saul. Speaking with great thoughtfulness, a few words at a time, Jaques emerges not as a cypher, a casual cynic as sometimes portrayed, but as a thoroughly convincing character, both sad and pitiable.

In a line inserted by the production into Shakespeare’s closing epilogue, James speaks of actors "of advancing years." But like the good wine, that Rosalind also refers to, they may improve with age.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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