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As You Like It

For the archive, we have filed reviews of several past productions of Shakespeare's As You Like It on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

RSC 2000 - RSC 2001 - Open Air 2002 - Wyndham's 2005 - RSC 2006 - Old Vic 2010 - RSC 2011 - NT 2015

 

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon  Summer 2000

As You Like It is surely the happiest, healthiest play ever written. It cleanses your soul to see it, and it is virtually foolproof - while it may be difficult to do wonderfully, it is almost impossible to do badly.

This is the one about the couple who fall in love at first sight and then are separately banished. When they meet again, she's disguised as a boy, and teases him about his moping around over the girl he left behind. 

As a game, the girl disguised as a boy offers to pretend to be the girl (well, in Shakespeare's day it would have been a boy actor playing a girl disguised as a boy pretending to be a girl), so the boy can practice what he would say to her. 

Thus she gets to test his sincerity without committing herself, but at the same time we watch her comic frustration when she can't just jump him as she's dying to.

(And one reason why the play is so refreshing is that all that gender confusion somehow de-genders everything so that we get to bask in the sweetness of a pure love not muddied by sexuality. The best As You Like It I ever saw was the all-male production of the National Theatre thirty years ago, when gender just disappeared.)

Gregory Doran's new RSC production of this happiest of all plays starts slowly and never quite reaches wonderfulness, but at its centre is real appreciation of the play's joyous celebration of uninhibited love.

Using the play's change of seasons as a guide, things start glumly. Set and costumes designed by Kaffee Fassett and Niki Turner for the first act are all black and white, lighting is dim, and the energy level is deliberately (and dangerously - you have to hang in there to get through this section) kept low.

Once in the forest of Arden, though, dark greens begin to creep into the picture, and by the second half the stage blooms with bright colouring book flowers and comfy cushions for everyone to recline on or flop into.

Alexandra Gilbreath is the most girlish Rosalind I can remember seeing. Unlike many, who play her as in control of the situation and testing Orlando, this girl isn't very good at playing a boy -- the old shepherd sees through her disguise instantly, but goes along with the gag. 

Her reactions are all feminine, as she bounces in joy, weeps in despair, and can hardly be restrained from jumping on Anthony Howell's Orlando whenever she sees him. The fun in the central sections of the play is entirely in watching her frustration and savouring her uninhibited excitement.

Unfortunately, few others in the cast match this delightful portrayal. Adrian Schiller's Touchstone, laid-back and poker-faced like Buster Keaton, is a wry counterbalance to Gilbreath's high energy, and Nancy Carroll is a more assertive Celia than most.

But Howell is as stolid as Orlandos tend to be, and too many of the others - including Declan Conlon as Jacques, Tom Smith as Oliver and Ian Hogg as the two dukes, merely recite their lines as set speeches, rather than making them seem like words thought at the moment.

Much can be forgiven on account of the bright, cheery performance at the centre, but we could have hoped for a higher general standard from the RSC.

Gerald Berkowitz


The Pit  Winter 2000-01

The Royal Shakespeare Company's production has undergone a double transfer - not just from Stratford to London, but from the big theatre to the smaller, all-white studio space of the Pit. The impressive visual effects (notably the day-glo flowers) are gone, but in their place is an intimacy that brings out all this version's strengths.

Chief among them is Alexandra Gilbreath's charming and textured portrayal of Rosalind, the girl-disguised-as-a-boy hanging out with the boy she loves. Sitting no more than 8 rows from her, you can watch her youthful love blossom and torment her as much as it enthralls her.

Alternately awestruck and dumbstruck, this Rosalind is one of the most delightfully comic I've ever seen, whether trying ineffectually to be butch, almost fainting in ecstasy at his closeness, or fighting the impulse to just jump him and get it over with. 

Other performances have grown since I saw the play in Stratford in 2000, or are allowed to display their complexities more fully in this new setting. 

Nancy Carroll gives hints of the confusion and pain Celia feels in watching her chum grow beyond her; while Declan Conlon balances Jaques' bitter cynicism with moments of repressed sensitivity and warmth, as in his kind treatment of the old Adam and his benediction on the lovers. 

Even Anthony Howell's Orlando (a thankless role if ever there was one, little more than straight man to Rosalind) has a relaxed, natural boyishness when seen from up close.

The opening act is still dreary, with Ian Hogg's evil Duke particularly weak (He's better doubling as the banished good Duke). Some potentially rich concepts, like Adrian Schiller's deadpan Touchstone, don't really go anywhere. But if you stick with it through the slow start, the sparkling central performance and the play's inherent warmth will carry you away.

Gerald Berkowitz


Open Air Theatre  Summer 2002

The outdoor theatre in Regent's Park had unprecedented bad luck opening its 2002 season, as both of its first nights were rained out, Romeo and Juliet before it could even start, and As You Like It midway through.

(Rain is a hazard there -- they never cancel performances in advance, and play through drizzles, only stopping when it becomes dangerous for the actors. Audiences get refunds or exchanges.)

Ordinarily, I would not presume to review a show based on seeing only the first act, but the weather-shocked press office invited me to. If I can get back to the show later in the season, I'll add a postscript. Meanwhile, accept what follows with the understanding that it is based on half the show.

This is one of Shakespeare's transvestite comedies. Boy and girl fall in love at first sight but are sepaprated. When they next meet, she (for legitimate plot reasons) is disguised as a boy, and he doesn't recognise her. 

That's the comic premise for one of Shakespeare's most delightful explorations of the glory and silliness of love -- boy talks to his new friend about how much in love he is, and friend ridicules him while secretly wanting to declare herself and embrace him.

But the strongest impression you get from Rachel Kavanaugh's production is that nobody here seems to realise that it's a comedy. I know there is a school of thought that comedy should be played straight. But in this play (and most of his comedies) Shakespeare makes the broad humour central to characterisation and theme. Suppress it, and you not only lose a lot of the fun, you lose much of what the play is about.

If Rosalind and Orlando don't react with comic doubletakes at their first meeting, then the magical love-at-first-sight that is the premise of the whole play is lost. If we don't see her constantly fighting the impulse to jump him when they meet again, then the fact that her disguise has trapped her goes by unseen.

If Corin and Touchstone don't turn their debate on the relative merits of court and country into a show-stopping vaudeville act, then one of the play's central themes (the curative power of nature) will be missed. And if we don't experience the whole play through the prism of happy laughter, then its whole purpose for being is gone.

Some laughs do sneak through in the first half, but they're in the lines, not the delivery. Rebecca Johnson is a perky and attractive Rosalind and Benedict Cumberbatch a sensible-seeming Orlando, but never for a minute did I believe that either of them was in love. And without that, the play just doesn't exist.

Caitlin Mottram brings some of the attractive comic sense of a young Penelope Wilton to Celia, but John Hodgkinson's Touchstone and Christopher Godwin's Jaques are strictly by-the-numbers.

All the big scenes between the lovers come in the second half, and maybe they're better. And I'm sure the happy ending will work, as it always does. The play, like many of Shakespeare's, is indestructible, and on a dry and pleasant summer night even a half-steam As You Like It can be pleasant.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Wyndham's Theatre  Summer-Autumn 2005

Shakespeare's healthiest and happiest play - a romantic comedy that is so imbued with good spirits and the celebration of love that it cleanses your soul and sends you out into the world better off than when you came in - is given as lovely a production as you could hope for in this summer run, which is oddly being promoted as just another celebrities-playing-at-theatre tourist trap.

Evidently I'm supposed to know who Helen McCrory (some excellent credits) and Sienna Miller (somebody's girlfriend) are, and be thrilled to see them in person. Actually, I'm thrilled to see the play done so well.

(Girl dresses as boy, meets the boy she loves, gets him to practice his wooing with her, fights the impulse to throw herself at him - that one.)

Director David Lan has set the play in late 1940s France, to no special benefit except that it allows for a lot of vaguely French-flavoured music by Tim Sutton - in addition to the songs Shakespeare wrote, several chunks of spoken text have been turned into songs, quite delightfully.

The banished Duke's forest camp has become a sort of artists' colony, complete with easels, books and resident dance band, and the Duke (Clive Rowe) is less an ousted politician than a holidaying choirmaster seizing every opportunity to lead his followers in song. (Rowe, best known as a musical comedy performer, does much of the singing himself.)

I've seen lighter-toned productions before, though this one has its full share of laughs, but few that have caught the sweet sadness and delicious pain of young love so beautifully. 

There is, after all, something masochistic (and yet totally real) about Rosalind's disguised encounters with Orlando, and Helen McCrory captures the girl's mix of joy and frustration beautifully.

One of my favourite lines in all of Shakespeare - 'That thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love!' - is usually played as a cry of the purest exaltation. But McCrory gasps it out through tears that remind us how overpowering and confusing the emotion is - a truth far more moving and entrancing than simple happiness would be.

That deepening and enriching quality, always filtered through a warm affection, carries through the entire play. Reece Shearsmith's Jacques is not just a witty cynic, but a sad little man determined to go his own way, a choice we have to allow him even as we see that it is only making him unhappier.

(Yes, I know the hints of that are there in the play, notably in Rosalind's comment that he is a traveller who gave up all that was valuable in his search for something new. But I've never seen it captured in the character with such sweet sadness.)

Sean Hughes makes the jester Touchstone not just an idle wit, but an ordinary bloke trying to eke out his modest share of happiness, and Ben Turner, despite being burdened with a terrible comic-French accent,  gives the lovesick shepherd Silvius the dignity of a true emotion the play respects even in its folly, while Denise Gough is simply the funniest Phoebe I've ever seen.

Despite some large cuts to the text, the play runs close to three hours. But you won't notice the time passing as the play works its entertaining and healing magic on you.

Gerald Berkowitz


Novello Theatre Spring 2006

Like some of Shakespeare's other great plays As You Like It is absolutely foolproof.

An inspired director and actors can do wonders with it, but all they really have to do is stay out of its way and let it work its life-affirming and love-celebrating magic. And even if they get in its way, the play always wins out in the end.

There are a number of small things wrong with Dominic Cooke's production for the RSC, but ultimately they don't matter. Once the play hits its stride it is as happy and lovely and warm and delightful as you could wish.

(A reminder: girl disguises as boy, encounters the boy she loves, suggests he practice his wooing technique on her - that one.)

It's slow going at first. It is not merely because Cooke and designer Rae Smith have decided (from hints in the text) that the play begins in winter that the first half is dark and fairly dreary. It's as if they felt that the play doesn't really start until the lovers reach the forest, and so all the expository plot stuff just had to be slogged through.

Even in the first half, though, Lia Williams gives us glimpses of the bright, perky and lovesick Rosalind she's going to become, and Barnaby Kay manages to establish Orlando as an attractively nice guy and not the prettyboy stick he too often is. Amanda Harris's schoolmistressy Celia is also a hint of fun things to come.

On the other hand, Joseph Mydell, having decided that Jaques is a bit of a dandy, never decides how much to camp him up and winds up doing very little with him at all, while Paul Chahidi errs in another direction with Touchstone, evidently not trusting the material and burying it in extraneous and generally unfunny shtick.

Ah, but once we get to the forest, it is not just the change to summer that brightens things up. The series of scenes in which Orlando and the disguised Rosalind play at wooing are wonderful.

Barnaby Kay captures his mix of pain, sincerity and sheer delight at being able to say the words out loud, even to what he thinks is another guy. And Lia Williams lets us watch Rosalind walk the tightrope of teasing him and fighting the impulse to jump his bones. 

(She almost loses the fight - there's a kiss in the middle that, to our delight, confuses both of them.)

And Amanda Harris also contributes a lot to the fun, in ways that veterans of the play will particularly appreciate. Celia is onstage, generally silently, through all the Rosalind-Orlando scenes, and I've seen plenty of talented directors and actresses defeated by the problem of what to do with her.

But Harris invokes the revolutionary technique of simply making her listen and react. Without stealing the focus from the lovers, Celia's blend of delight, disbelief and even envy registers in Harris's face and adds enormously to the warm comic tone.

Sit patiently through the first hour, accept the vague sense that some of the secondary roles could be played and directed better, and just wait for the play to turn on its magic after the interval. It will, and you'll go out floating on a cloud of delight.

Gerald Berkowitz


Old Vic Theatre   Summer 2010

The most frustrating shows to review are the ones that are O. K. but no better. 

Someone new to Shakespeare who saw this production of one of his best romantic comedies would find some laughs, some sweetness, and a lot of dull stretches, and go away thinking that's what Shakespeare is supposed to be like. 

Well, it isn't, and a really good production of this play isn't just O. K., but a total delight. 

And that gap, between what is delivered here and what could be, keeps me from being able to recommend this, unless one or another of the performers is a favourite of yours. 

This is one of Shakespeare's transvestite comedies - girl disguises as boy and then meets the man she loves, who doesn't recognise her. She gets him to do some role-playing, practicing his wooing while she plays the girl and fights the impulse to tear off her disguise and jump his bones. 

That's the quality that is most missing in this Sam Mendes-directed production with a mixed British and American cast - the warm comedy that arises from knowing that there are two people in love here and that their confusion and frustration can be enjoyed precisely because we know how easily it can be corrected. 

Juliet Rylance is lovely, charming and perky-as-all-get-out as Rosalind, and indeed she provides much of the evening's fun. 

But her Rosalind is too uninvolved and in control for too much of the time, not letting us see how much she is frantically improvising to keep him from walking away, while frustrating herself by making herself listen passively (or pretend to judge critically) as he makes his declarations of love. 

Too much in the production has that just-missing-the-point quality. Jaques, the professional melancholiac who hovers around the edges of things being glum, can be presented as philosophical or foolish (or both), but Stephen Dillane just makes him lugubrious, so slow and inexpressive of speech that you're surprised he hasn't forgotten the beginning of a sentence before he reaches the end of it. 

I think I can see what the set, costume and lighting designers were up to in making the first scenes so dark and dull to look at, but the effect is to make the opening scenes dark and dull, as well as slow-moving. 

No, the pleasures of this As You Like It are in Juliet Rylance's personality, in some nice comic turns among the secondary cast, particularly Anthony O'Donnell and Thomas Sadoski, and above all in the inherent loveliness and life-affirming warm humour of Shakespeare's play, which comes through even without much help from the production.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Roundhouse   January-February 2011

Shakespeare's brightest and happiest romantic comedy is given a bright and happy production by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of their too-brief London season. 

There are a few minor stumbles, but nothing to keep you from full enjoyment of this warm and healthful play. 

This is the one about the girl disguised as a boy, who meets the boy she loves and gets him to practice his wooing on her while trying to keep herself from jumping him. 

There's a lot of witty chat about sentimental and more cool-headed views of love, and on the relative attractions of court and countryside, and everything ends as happily as you know from the start it must. 

This play lives and dies with its Rosalind, and Katy Stephens gives her all the bouncy joy of a teenager in love, along with the more mature awareness that her Orlando's own soppy romanticism has to be tested and tempered with a little common sense before she can give herself over to it. 

Most Rosalinds capture either the being-in-love or the cool-headedness, but few can show and let us enjoy the conflict between the two as delightfully as Stephens does. 

Orlando himself can be a bit of a stick, but Jonjo O'Neill nicely rounds him out, bringing alive his intense frustration in the early scenes and the way escape from the court enables him to relax and even enjoy the mock wooing game with his new pal. 

Mariah Gale makes a nicely tart Celia, James Tucker is touching as the lovesick shepherd Silvius, and Geoffrey Freshwater brings effortless warmth to the older shepherd Corin. 

I've got some reservations about Forbes Masson's whitefaced Jaques, whose melancholy is obviously a pose, with every effect played for the benefit of an imagined adoring audience. And the biggest disappointment is Richard Katz's thoroughly unfunny Touchstone, the actor driven to shouting and pratfalls in a desperate attempt at laughs. 

Director Michael Boyd  continues the RSC tradition of absolutely clear speaking of the verse, though his actors have / a distracting tendency to / pause every two or / three words without / regard for meaning. 

And as with his Antony and Cleopatra, Boyd shows too little sensitivity to the fluid requirements of a long thrust stage, constantly planting actors in one spot so they have their backs to a third of the audience, or block the view of other actors, for long stretches. 

Despite a lot of small textual cuts, including the Epilogue (replaced by a song), the play runs the RSC's obligatory three hours, though I doubt you will find many slow moments in it.

Gerald Berkowitz


Olivier Theatre  Winter 2015-2016

Warm, happy and funny, Shakespeare's romantic comedy is one of the healthiest plays ever written. 

Seeing it cures what ails you. It cleanses your soul and sends you out better than you were when you came in. 

And despite a slow start, Polly Findlay's new production for the National Theatre soon gets out of the way at lets the play's entertaining and restorative powers joyously shine through. 

This is the one about the boy and girl who fall in love at first sight but are parted. The next time they meet she is disguised as a boy and, to test and tease them both, lets her new chum practice his wooing technique on her. 

Director Findlay and designer Lizzie Clachan start off ominously by turning the repressive court in which the play begins into a busy modern office, perhaps meant to suggest joylessness or maybe the evil Duke's spying-on-his-people HQ. When the action shifts to the Forest of Arden, all the chairs and desks rise in the air to create the suggestion of trees. 

Up to that point you might have wondered whether anybody there realised that this was a comedy. They get the underlying drama right, and some of the romance, but dozens of jokes in the text and opportunities for comic doubletakes and the like are missed. 

This is compounded by staging that has nobody actually looking at each other or conversing naturally, but reciting speeches at each other while they face front.

The play doesn't really come alive until Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) and Orlando (Joe Bannister) meet again with her in disguise. But thankfully from then on it is as near to perfection as you could wish. 

Craig has exactly the right mix of cuteness, steel, femininity and tomboy spunk to make Rosalind irresistible, and she catches (as too many Rosalinds don't) the sweetly comic fact that the girl is tormenting herself as much as Orlando by not just announcing herself and jumping him. 

Orlando can, in uninspired hands, be little more than an identity-less straight man. But Joe Bannister gives him a personality as attractive as Rosalind's, of an amiable, slightly dim jock delighted to find himself having the brand new experience of being happily in love. 

Their scenes together sparkle, and if nothing else in the production is quite as delight-filled, there is nothing to burst the bubble. 

Patsy Ferran's Celia is appropriately wry, and if Mark Benton's barroom-drunk of a Touchstone loses some of the easy wit and symbolic significance of a court jester, he does capture the guy's earthy appetite for life. 

Paul Chahidi seems right at the edge of finding a really interesting Jaques he hasn't quite sorted out yet, of a man who hides his real and painful melancholy under the mask of exaggerated play-acted melancholy. 

Go. Sit patiently though a misguided first half-hour or so. Things will get very, very much better.

Gerald Berkowitz

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