Theatre review: The RSC's As You Like It on DVD
As You Like It is a curious play, one that lurches from wild comedy one moment to thoughtful contemplation the next. You could say that there is just such a rich blend of human feelings in any Shakespeare play, and in As You Like It the purpose does seem to be to show that the joyful and the melancholy are intertwined and two sides of the same coin; a coin that you could call love, or even life. Both sides are captured well in Kimberley Sykes production for the RSC partly through some clever theatrical devices and partly through close adherence to the text, but although its emphasis on the comedy doesn't detract from the exquisite melancholy in this play, the exaggerated comic touches applied might not be to everyone's taste.
The play's wonderful duality is central to the purpose of the work, and in a play that contains the immortal and meaningful line "All the world's a stage" that of course is tied up very much in the nature of theatricality. Kimberley Sykes makes that apparent in one or two scenes, notably one brief meta-theatrical device where the changing over of a scene and costume change takes place in front of the audience. It highlights the clever mirroring of Duke Frederick, the villain who is quick to temper, disavowing those who he takes a sudden dislike to, with the more tolerant, peaceful back-to-nature attitude of his banished brother. Both roles are played here by Antony Byrne, but there's also a mirror-image switch of his attendants that marks the division more plainly.
There are parallels also in Orlando's banishment of his brother Oliver, and perhaps less obviously but at the same time more pointedly, there's a duality expressed in how the comedy of Touchstone is contrasted with the melancholy of Jacques, each wise and fools in their own way. It's a marvel of theatrical writing, providing roles here that offer a multiplicity of ways in which one can choose to look at the marvel and absurdity of life, one enumerated famously by Jacques in his seven stages of man (a speech well delivered here by Sophie Stanton). The comedy however doesn't come across quite as well, being rather manic, particularly the way that Lucy Phelps' Rosalind/Orlando throws away many great lines in a rush of silly accents. There is an attempt to add or exaggerate through visual jokes and songs, but other than a brilliant Sandy Grierson as a raucous Scottish-accented Touchstone, little of it makes a strong enough impression.
The production however is more successful in how Stephen Brimson Lewis's pastoral set design highlights the divide between people and their better (or at least true) nature. 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. It's 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.
The DVD release of the RSC's 2019 As You Like It from Opus Arte is region-free and in NTSC format for international compatibility. Sometimes that can result in an image that lacks detail and colour definition, but this particular transfer looks very good even in the lower resolution. The DVD extras contain the usual RSC production interviews, a cast gallery and a director's commentary. The booklet contains an essay on relationship between players and audience in the theatre of Shakespeare's day by Bridget Escolme and a synopsis. English subtitles are included.