Theatre review: As You Like It at the RSC
As You Like It
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2019
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Kimberley Sykes
Cast: Lucy Phelps, Antony Byrne, Sophie Khan Levy, Sandy Grierson, David Ajao, Sophie Stanton, Laura Elsworthy
RSC Cinema Live - 17th April 2019
It's a comedy so you really shouldn't be expecting to find anything too clever or profound about As You Like It, but it's still Shakespeare and it does have something for everyone. It's all about love, which makes it something relatively simple that we can all easily relate to, but being Shakespeare, it's done in a bright, witty and amusing manner that deals with love in all its maddening complexity.
You can see then why director Kimberley Sykes wants to invite as much audience participation as they can manage - which in practice doesn't turn out to be all that much, this is still the Royal Shakespeare Theatre not the Globe - as it's a work that you want the audience to relate to, to connect with the characters, understand them, feel involved in what they feel, as well as simply enjoy the varied journeys they take towards true love. And, on that front at least the RSC production does that very well.
There are four relationships consummated in marriage by the end of As You Like It, and between them they do cover love in a few of its many guises. There's Rosalind and Orlando, of course, which is portrayed as a deep and enduring love that has been tested and found worthy; there's Phoebe and the Shepherd, Silvius (or as it is here just for further variety, Shepherdess, Silvia) a pairing that needs some work but could prove to be enduring; there's the fool Touchstone and Audrey the goatherd, a relationship born out of lust which Jaques observes is likely to last all of two months; and belatedly, there's Rosalind's cousin Celia who matches up with Orlando's older brother Oliver, for what seems to be a marriage of convenience between families (Oliver also conveniently adopting a much kinder character), but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's anything lesser even for it.
Kimberley Sykes certainly gets all the variety and colour of the lively journey that these characters come to find their true loves, and it succeeds through a more conventional means than the intended one of inviting audience participation. The audience contribution is limited to a few walk-on parts holding love poems from Orlando (presenter Suzy Klein) and letters spelling out the name of Rosalind, with a little interaction and playful baiting of the audience, but nothing more than is usually the case in RSC productions of Shakespeare comedies. What really sets the tone of the work is the performances, and in particular the vital central role of Rosalind.
Rosalind is a terrific role that has made the names of great actors in the past, from Vanessa Redgrave to Helen Mirren, and Lucy Phelps certainly takes a lively and excitable approach to the terrific range of emotions, situations and character that is available and made available in Sykes's direction. She has the advantage of a good androgynous look that allows her to play with the daring gender fluidity of the dual role of Rosalind/Ganymede, takes in the development of Rosalind's rush of emotions with all the excitement of the moment, and forms a good double-act with her cousin Sophie Khan Levy's Celia.
Aside from the ardour of romantic love and the comedy of many of the situations - Sandy Grierson's Touchstone providing plenty of base kind - Kimberley Sykes does a little more than invite audience participation to expand on the nature of love as it is covered in As You Like It. There's a little bit of a meta-theatrical touch in bringing the backstage to the front stage and opening up the construct of the play, which is kind of obligatory in a play that includes the famous line that "all the world's a stage" but again this doesn't add a great deal, and indeed even Jaques's world-weary wisdom and interventions seem unusually detached here.
More successfully however in terms of breaking down artificial barriers is how it is evoked in Stephen Brimson Lewis's pastoral set designs. If there is any barrier that lies between people finding their true love, it's in artificial and sometimes unspoken rules imposed on them by laws and society. Rosalind and Celia have to escape to the Forest of Arden, back to nature as it were, living among the shepherds and goats, a magical place, not unlike A Midsummer Night's Dream where love can be found in its purest form, not dictated to by power, authority, family or social convention, or indeed in this production - since it is already hinted at in the Rosalind/Ganymede ambiguity - love that doesn't need to conform to social attitudes around gender alignment.
The basic choreography and playing out of the romantic situations is clearly and vivaciously played, but it is enhanced by the set designs, by the stripping away of social conformity and getting back in touch with those natural rhythms, with love letters carved into trees and, in the case of Touchstone at least, letting the more 'animalistic' side out. The four weddings are then consecrated under a giant puppet wood god, an impressive display of stagecraft, but one that best emphasises the nature of the play, the beauty of its sentiments and the playfulness it wants to communicate as its grand message to its audience.