When the Royal Shakespeare Company makes a somewhat unexpected entrance for the start of this version of 'As You Like It', we know there's more afoot than a 'mere' comedy, because the excellent singing informs us that we're in for 'winter and rough weather'.
With snow pouring from the flies, it's not long before we hear of some inclement ‘weather’ that’s befallen one of the main characters, Orlando (excellently played by Barnaby Kay). Since his father died and his brother Oliver inherited his estates, Orlando has been treated more like a slave rather than a brother by Oliver, and Orlando’s had enough.
Not content with describing one un-brotherly relationship, Shakespeare gives us a double dose, because Duke Frederick has deposed his brother Duke Senior who has fled and taken refuge with some of his followers in the Forest Of Arden, where much of the remainder of the play takes place. Rae Smith's set for this is essentially a single tree. That might sound a little sparse for a forest until you realise that the tree in question is rather large, if not enormous - its branches stretch out to the wings and it's trunk into the heavens above. I presume the tree is meant to be an oak, though I couldn't confirm that given my pathetically limited botanical knowledge. Presumably meant to symbolise England, the tree is the focal point of the play, and is sturdy enough to withstand a considerable amount of shaking in a storm scene, and to be clambered over by numerous members of the cast. The forest had a considerable amount of symbolism for Shakespeare too as his native Warwickshire had an ancient forest of the same name which, even by the Bard's time, had been decimated and much of it enclosed.
Having come close to throttling his brother, Orlando decides to pit himself against the champion in the Duke's wrestling match (yes, there's something for everyone in this play). Against the odds, he's victorious, but once the Duke finds out Orlando's family background, he withholds the prize. Moreover, he banishes his daughter's companion, Rosalind, on pain of death (now where have we heard that before?) because she's the daughter of the banished Duke, and Duke Frederick thinks she might be trouble. So, Rosalind and the Duke's daughter Celia decide to head off to the forest in disguise - Rosalind as a man, and Celia as her (his) sister. They're soon followed by Orlando who has discovered that his brother is now plotting to kill him.
Although the playing shouts ‘quality’ all round, what really shines in this production is the duo of Rosalind and Celia, brilliantly played by Lia Williams and Amanda Harris respectively. On the surface it's charming teamwork, but there's considerable depth in both performances too. Amanda Harris doesn't have much in the way of lines, but her brilliant use of gestures and facial expression leaves us in no doubt what she's thinking, and contributes immensely to the humour of the play. And Lia Williams has devised a clever, swaggering, 'hands in pockets' approach to her male disguise, which had the unfortunate side effect of reminding me all too clearly of my time as a school teacher. Of course, in Shakespeare's day the confusion surrounding Rosalind's male disguise would have been all the greater since a boy actor would have been playing the female character of Rosalind anyway, and then would have been dressed-up to play a boy - try keeping up with that if you can!
The modern dress approach here doesn’t detract from the essential qualities of the play, but I was a little shocked at the use of fur coats in the winter scenes, because I assume it might cause some distress to those with strong feelings about the use of animal skins in the clothing trade - I hope the material is 'simulated fur' and not the real variety!
There's something a little camp in the Forest of Arden in the form of the melancholy Lord, Jaques, who wears a black trilby hat for winter and a white one for summer - managing to get them both at what appeared to me to be exactly the same jaunty angle. It's Jaques (excellently played by Joseph Mydell) who has the famous 'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players' speech, which he delivered with considerable aplomb. When we first meet him, his 'melancholy' is in full flow, and his continual demands to hear more melancholic music were all the more amusing because they were so carefully timed and cleverly delivered.
Fine music has been something of a hallmark in this London season from the RSC at the Novello theatre, and here it's pretty-well reached its peak with some melodic singing from the whole cast, and Gurpreet Singh in particular.
With a running time of over three and a quarter hours, Dominic Cooke’s well-directed version of 'As You Like It' might be stretching it a bit for some, but with a talented and enthusiastic cast in great form, there’s more than enough to impress and maintain interest. It's a fitting climax to the RSC’s season of Shakespearian comedies, which has been both innovative and terrifically enjoyable.
'As You Like It' more than whets the appetite for the year long 'Complete Works' season which is due to commence in Stratford on the Bard's birthday, 23rd of April - something to relish as we move from the 'rough weather' of our own winter into what, hopefully, will be a more uplifting spring.
Production photo by Keith Pattison