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 The Theatreguide.London Review

As You Like It
RSC at Barbican Theatre   Autumn-Winter 2019-2020

This may well be the healthiest and happiest play ever written. It cheers your heart, raises your spirits and cleanses your soul.

It is so perfect that even the RSC's self-consciousness and ponderousness can't spoil it – though it does seem at moments like they're trying.

This is the one in which a boy and girl meet-cute, and the next time they meet she (for plot reasons that make sense at the time) is disguised as a boy. He doesn't recognise her, and to test him and tease herself she invites him to try out his wooing techniques with her.

The very, very best thing about this RSC production, beyond the play itself, is Lucy Phelps as Rosalind.  Phelps communicates both the spunky tomboyishness and the love-sick femininity of the girl with equal believability and delight.

But even more, she recognises what too few Rosalinds realise – that the central joke of the play is not the trick she is playing on Orlando but the trap she has caught herself in, inviting him to declare his love for her while she has to remain aloof and resisting, when all she really wants to do is throw herself at him.

Lucy Phelps keeps Rosalind's exquisite torment always dominant, so that we sympathise even as we laugh at her plight. Much of the healthy spirit I mentioned earlier comes from the play's warm love for all its characters, and Phelps keeps us always wanting the best for Rosalind.

Her characterisation is the engine that drives the play and you miss her whenever she's offstage.

Elsewhere, director Kimberley Sykes has cast women in some roles written for men, with mixed results. Sophie Stanton invests the cynic Jacques with unexpected and welcome warmth by giving her melancholy a maternal flavour, as if she has seen too much of the mess men have made of the world but can't help loving them anyway.

In less adept hands Jacques can seem out of step with the rest of the play, and Stanton brings the character into its charitable spirit.

Less successful is turning the lovesick shepherd Silvius into rustic lesbian Silvia.

An essay in the programme defends this in terms of the play's already-present toying with the fluidity of gender identities. But that reads exactly like what it is, the work of an Associate Professor of English, sure to lead to a promotion but with no real relevance to the play as experienced by actual audiences. (As a former Professor of English myself, I'm allowed to say that.)

Silvia's passion for Phoebe requires too much cutting or rewriting of lines, makes mincemeat of the characterisations, and just adds too little to the play.

Like most actors stuck with playing Orlando David Ajao is unable to do much with the generally thankless straight-man role. I've seen occasional Orlandos find a bit more in the part, but there's no shame in failing. And Sophie Khan Levy is given even less to work with as Celia, and must settle for serving the play almost anonymously.

Sandy Grierson seems to have taken Max Wall as his external model for Touchstone, half sad tramp and half red-nose clown, but in the process he loses much sense of the character.

Forgive me for lapsing back into ex-professor mode, but one of Touchstone's functions is to represent a court figure totally out of place in the country ('A Fool in the forest!' exclaims Jacques in delighted surprise), and Grierson offers too little of that.

Another of Kimberley Sykes's directorial choices is to play around with the fourth wall (again defended by an academic article in the programme). But she does it so randomly and inconsistently that those moments play like interruptions rather than a controlling performance style.

The house lights are brought up for most of the forest scenes, and set pieces like the Seven Ages Of Man are played directly to us, with no pretence of naturalism.

The actors wander out into the audience a couple of times, Touchstone showers the front row with glitter for reasons I've forgotten, and a few audience members are dragged onstage to play the trees Orlando writes his love poems on.

By the time we get to the giant puppet in the last scene you can't help feeling money is being spent just because money was there to be spent, not that it serves the play in any real way.

See the play for Lucy Phelps's radiant Rosalind. See it for Sophie Stanton's warm and maternal Jacques. Above all, see it because the play itself is one of the wonders of the world.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  As You Like It - Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre 2019

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