“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare

at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 24th April 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

Around two-thirds of the way through Maria Aberg’s production of As You Like It, as yet another bizarre wooing scene took place and various characters continued to appear unannounced bearing news of important plot points, it dawned on me just how little sense Shakespeare’s summer comedy makes. It’s a hotch-potch of language, genres and characters complete with a strange forest lord, some couples who fall instantly in love and one unhappy wife at its ending. But while many directors choose to trim the text to bring out certain themes, Aberg chooses to leave pretty much the whole messy, convoluted text intact and embraces its anarchy, so that what we get is a raw production full of passion, demonstrating the necessity of love and its relationship to nature.

The first act begins with Orlando (Alex Waldmann) sweeping leaves centre stage, an oppressive timber structure behind him shutting out light and silencing dissent with its menace. He is dejected, forlorn, being forced to get rid of the one reminder of nature in the space. In this court, everyone wears black and is restricted to society’s proscribed gender roles, as demonstrated by a simple piece of bewitching choreography by Ayse Tashkiran. A small dirt-filled box is shortly revealed, however, which begins the transformation to Arden and unlocks the potential for love.

After a pretty special piece of theatre wizardry before the interval which opens up space and leads us to the magical world of the forest (intelligent work from designer Naomi Dawson), the second act becomes pacier and freer, as Aberg and her company exploit the comedic elements of the text. The main thrust of the stage now covered in dirt, the scenes swiftly move into each other, capturing the fluidity of nature. Pippa Nixon’s nigh-on revelatory Rosalind truly comes into her own here, as the forest allows her to ‘play’ herself, free from the confines of court. She jumps around with boyish charm, and owns every scene she’s in, taking on the role of ‘male’ in order to woo Orlando. In this production, the discussion of gender and its performance is properly foregrounded, so that we are forced to consider the origins and implications of Rosalind’s actions. All this desire and madness comes to fruition in a euphoric finale (coming fantastically close to theatre-as-gig) and a smart, nuanced epilogue, as the shackles of the past are well and truly destroyed.

As You Like It works as a companion piece to Aberg’s postmodern, pop-cultural King John last year, offering an alternative to that production’s critique of contemporary society. Here, nods are made to the resurgence of folk culture in the mainstream (highlighted by Laura Marling’s balladic and anthemic songs), as we are forced to consider the things which we’ve lost as we bulldoze through life seeking “progress”. There are moments or ritual, dirtiness, anarchy and dance which support an idea of love as a primal, animalistic instinct.

This is the strongest ensemble the RSC have come across in a while, which pays off considering the many stories in this play. Cliff Burnett’s hippyish Duke Senior, though exiled from the court, remains grounded and gentle, while Joanna Horton’s calm Celia does a good job of foiling Nixon’s wide-eyed wonder. The two comic roles of Jacques and Touchstone come naturally to Oliver Ryan and Nicholas Tennant, both of whom seem to inhabit a slightly different realm and both eccentric in their own ways, with the former jerkily dancing to folk songs and the latter, in white face and a red nose, proving that the best comedy is often found in silence. As the two lovers, Waldmann and Nixon find an extraordinary chemistry, and do that rare thing of making us forget we’re watching Shakespeare.

The anarchy, humour and passion are so infectious that the only criticism that can really be levelled at the production is that we want more of the same. Aberg creates vivid stage images which become seared on the brain but also has a knack for nuance and detail. As You Like It is a feel-good, passionate and gloriously fun show for the summer months, but through a return to our roots it also shows a genuine alternative to our miserable contemporary situation.

Read my interview with Maria here.

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