REVIEW: As You Like It (Barbican) ★★★

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s newest season at their London home, the Barbican, encompasses The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and is now being kicked off with Kimberley Syke’s As You Like It.

Orlando (David Ajao) first sets eyes on Rosalind (Lucy Phelps) when he wrestles for his fortune. They immediately fall head over heels in love. Alas, upon returning home, Rosalind suddenly finds herself banished by her uncle. She decides to seek refuge in the forest of Arden, taking with her cousin Celia (Sophie Khan Levy) and Court Fool Touchstone (Sandy Grierson). Keenly aware of the dangers lone travelling women may face, Rosalind poses as a man – now calling herself Ganymede – and Celia pretends to be Ganymede’s sister Aliena. Meanwhile, Orlando finds out about his older brother’s ploy to kill him and also escapes into the forest. Soon he meets “Ganymede” who, in a bid to be close to him, promises to cure Orlando’s lovesickness in daily lessons. The usual Shakespearean crossdressing hilarity ensues.

As You Like It is one of the Bard’s more confusing comedies at the best of times and the re-gendering of several roles in this production does not help its clarity any further. It does, however, ensure women subtly creep into all centerstage roles and get the most exciting dialogue. Female empowerment and gender fluidity are the themes underpinning most scenes in Syke’s adaptation. The production plays with many interpretations and ideas, but possibly ends up too ambitious. For example, the introduction as Orlando and Charles as wrestling champions – soon dismissed. Celia and Rosalind’s portrayal as contemporary socialite party girls – soon forgotten. The historical setting ambiguous – modern businessmen suits and punk rock clothes hint to at least the last 40 years, but the pagan looking forest folk appear more olden timey. The beginning of the play seems to establish the bond between Rosalind and Celia as the most important dynamic – just to quickly move Celia into a more background spot. The gender recasting of Phoebe and Silvius is charming but the logic falls flat towards the end. Why can Phoebe not marry Ganymede because he turns out to be a woman but then marries Silvia in his stead anyway?
None of these things are a problem that would spoil the show, but it would be better enjoyed without the continuous guessing about the core punchline of the adaptation.

The acting and aesthetic’s are what make this production. It amps up the comedy factor right from the start and has some wonderful physical humour in it – whether that be Leo Wan’s often almost-choked Oliver or Grierson dangling from a bridge above the stage, a suitcase hanging from his foot – or Emily Johnstone’s heels sinking into grass (has theatre ever been more true to life?). As soon as the cast enters the forest of Arden, the play features frequent musical interludes and even incorporates audience interaction.

Lucy Phelps masterfully commands the stage and captivates throughout. Nevertheless it is a man whose performance is most dominant: Sandy Grierson as rockstar Touchstone – in attitude as well as in style (think skinny tartan trousers and sequin top with red boots) – steals the show with his thick Scottish accent and raucous wit.

It’s always a pleasure to see a play at the beautiful Barbican, but Stephen Brimson Lewis’ elegant set design makes this production especially delightful. What goes around comes around: the circle is ever present in the forest meetings, the backdrop, the disco ball, the patch of grass at the start of the play, and in how all storylines come full circle in the final quadruple wedding ceremony.

The giant puppetry by Melvyn Millar is absolutely astounding.

Overall, a successful staging but not a must see – watch As You Like It if and when you like it.

Reviewed by Lisa Theresa Downey-Dent
Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

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