As You Like It (RSC at the Barbican Centre)

Kimberley Sykes has crafted an interesting version of As You Like It for the RSC’s 2019 season, which utilises the whole of the Barbican Theatre as part of the Forest of Arden – that is, the stalls are “trees” and the front few rows in particular get pulled in for a fair bit of audience participation.

The first scenes take place at the court of the dour and choleric Duke Frederick, who has banished his brother, stolen his lands, and assumed the title for himself. His daughter Celia keeps her cousin Rosalind by her side as her closest friend, and a Fool, Touchstone keeps them company. Across the town, young Orlando is kept from money and education by his elder brother Oliver since their father’s death.

Circumstance means that both Rosalind (with her friends in tow) and Orlando (with his trusty servant Adam) need to leave, and they head for the Forest of Arden, where the exiled and affable Duke Senior holds court. His followers include a melancholy philosopher, Jacques (in this production, a woman). The translation of place from court to forest takes place as the actors change costumes before our eyes, notably Antony Byrne who plays both Dukes.

Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It
Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It

I found the constant breaking of the fourth wall worked well with the character of Touchstone, played with a deft touch of clownishness by Sandy Grierson, who ad libbed and cavorted around to keep the energy levels up, especially when dealing with an errant texter. Less effective were the constant changing of light cues and house lights up at a click from Lucy Phelps’s Rosalind: in the RSC’s main Stratford theatre this might have worked more effectively than in the multi-level Barbican. On the front row we felt very much included; I wonder if the upper levels felt the same?

I appreciated Sophie Khan Levy’s work as Celia, particularly watching her in the background during the scene where Rosalind (disguised as a boy, “Ganymede”) spars and flirts with Orlando. Charlotte Arrowsmith, as an extremely facially expressive Audrey, signed her lines in BSL as her beau William (Tom Dawze) interpreted for the rowdy Touchstone, which gave this amusing scene an injection of life. And Richard Clews as Adam revealed a surprisingly rich singing voice at odds with his sinewy, ageing character.

Less effective were a cartoonish Phoebe from Laura Elsworthy, who was now loved by her shepherdess, Silvia, rather than shepherd, Silvio (although Amelia Donkor had moments of wistfulness as the lovelorn maid mooning after her hideous mistress). Sophie Stanton effectively held the attention during Jacques’s “seven ages” speech, and her gender swap gave a new dimension to her parting scene from Duke Senior.

In the performance I saw, understudy Aaron Thiara stepped up to play Orlando, and I found his interpretation of the role amusing and gauche, and he displayed a believable chemistry with his “Rosalind”, so beloved that he carved her name and poems about her into trees across the forest. As Rosalind, Lucy Phelps did not really look that different in her Ganymede guise, so it seemed a stretch that her own father would not know her in breeches, but her strong voice and deep conviction in following the path set out for her allowed us to put disbelief aside.

Sandy Grierson as Touchstone in As You Like It
Sandy Grierson as Touchstone in As You Like It

As You Like It suffers somewhat in the group of Shakespeare comedies by having a huge amount of characters which can be confusing to new audiences. In this production, not only have some changes been made to who the characters are, but some are then also pretending to be someone else. As the two Dukes, Byrne does well but the one in the forest was far less of a caricature.

Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the set is largely natural – it might have been interesting to see the theme extend into the auditorium in some way to enhance the fiction that the audience are part of the woodland. A large puppet of Hymen, designed and directed by Mervyn Millar, dominates the traditional happy ending(s), and the music, composed by Tim Sutton, feels very appropriate to the piece.

As You Like It continues at the Barbican in repertory with other RSC plays until 18 January. Photo credits Topher McGrillis.

LouReviews purchased a discounted ticket to see As You Like It.