As you may have already gathered, I’m a bit of a Shakespeare nerd. I love the vibrancy, intensity and colours of his language and he is responsible for creating some of my favourite characters of all time. Admittedly though, I confess I generally prefer the tragedies to the comedies, so am not as well versed in the latter body of his work than I would like to be beyond seeing the odd amateur production, studying Twelfth Night in secondary school, and a module on the comedies during one semester of university where as is the nature of the curriculum beast, you jump from play to play regularly and there isn’t really time to go into as much depth as the Shakespeare enthusiast in me likes. That in mind, when I first heard As You Like It was being staged at the National with one of my favourite actresses in the leading role along with some other faces familiar to me, I wanted to take the opportunity to challenge myself with going to see a comedy of his I’d only touched upon very briefly during my days of academia.
In the run up to seeing this production I stumbled across an article from The Guardian, an interview with aforementioned favourite leading lady Rosalie Craig, and director Polly Findlay. In it, Findlay describes her perspective on the play is as if Shakespeare was trying to ‘write the 1599 version of The Fast Show’ and the play has a bit of everything in it, and the pair enthuse wonderfully about the contemporary setting and the beauty of the strong female at the centre of the text, Rosalind. It really excited me and was a joy to read them speak so passionately about their work, you can read what they have to say here: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/nov/02/as-you-like-it-shakespeare-national-theatre-london-rosalie-craig-polly-findlay-interview
As You Like It is Shakespeare’s comedy that revels in freedom, love and change. In exile, and with her father banished, Rosalind and her cousin Celia venture into the Forest of Arden, and whilst there embrace a new way of life (in Rosalind’s case quite literally, she becomes a man named Ganymede) and along the way falls spectacularly in love. The joy I found in this production was that it was so far away from the vision I had of the play in my imagination, and I didn’t really know what I was expecting to begin with! It reiterated to me that reinventing Shakespeare with a contemporary edge means, at least to me, that you’re able to look at the play differently and perhaps discover new things about it. Though I love reading Shakespeare, there’s nothing that compares to seeing it live, each actor and members of the creative team puts their own stamp on proceedings and challenges my ideas and expectations. Lizzie Clachan did this in spades with her sharp and inventive set design: instead of the familiar court at the beginning, we are greeted with an office space; dark and almost suffocating with various members of the cast appearing at regular intervals for bursts of synchronised typing and snack eating.
When Rosalind and Celia, banished by Duke Frederick and tired of convention retreat into the Forest of Arden, the tables, chairs and other trappings are lifted up and hang to serve as the trees. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen, totally draw dropping eerily atmospheric; there are even actors and singers perched amid them, and unleash a chorus of forest sounds throughout, huge kudos to Carolyn Downing for creating such a unique and wonderful soundscape, coupled with Orlando Gough’s music making for some glorious spine chilling moments, including Fra Fee’s and company’s gorgeous acapella rendition of Under The Greenwood Tree, and a joyous final scene rendition of Thomas Morley’s It Was A Lover and His Lass.
What all that did was take the grey, earthy palette and give it an explosion of life and depth that I don’t think would be possible to the same intensity if the creative team had not made the bold and brave choices that they do. A word on my favourite choice: having the cast double as Corin’s flock of sheep. The cast, all wearing Aran sweaters and armed with knuckle and knee pads, crawl onto and around the stage and create some of the most utterly adorable and convincing illusions of sheep: bleating, head-butting and eating of Orlando’s love notes included!
With this sharp, stripped back production design comes the scope for the actors to shine and truly become the driving force of the drama and my attention, and this production boasts some brilliant performances. One of the things I love about Shakespeare is that his plays feature some dynamic and interesting women, and not knowing the play very well, it soon became apparent that Rosalind is a new firm favourite of mine. She’s rarely offstage, has more lines than almost every other female character in the canon, and is essentially just awesome because she runs rings around everyone. It was my honour to see Rosalie Craig as Rosalind (my first outing to see her in a non-musical theatre role) and thought she was the perfect blend of wit, grace and vulnerability. Rosalind seems to be the kind of character that changes the dynamic of the scene whenever she’s around, which was a pleasure to watch unfold as it kept me on my toes; I felt Rosalie really understood this and threw herself wholeheartedly into the spirit of things. Her enthusiasm was infectious and her smile lights up the stage!
Patsy Ferran (Celia) and Rosalie Craig (Rosalind) share a moment in Arden. (Photo by Johan Persson)
Rosalind is joined by her cousin Celia, here played by Patsy Ferran. Patsy is a new face for me and I was entranced by her characterisation of Celia as this wonderful blend of humour and endearing, almost childlike innocence. The relationship between the cousins is actually one of my favourites in the play, as it’s closer to a bond of sisterhood; they love each other dearly but also have moments where they wind each other up, and so on. The chemistry between Rosalie and Patsy radiates warmth and charm and is a joy to watch.
Cousins plot their escape! (Photo by Johan Persson)
I found Joe Bannister’s Orlando to be a breath of fresh air. Usually, my experience of lovesick men in Shakespeare can be a little melodramatic and therefore slightly irritating as they’re usually these muscular, ‘macho’ types, but I saw Joe’s interpretation to be a loveable, anxious, almost ‘nerdy’ kind of guy and was rooting for him. The wrestling match between Charles and Orlando, the moment where Rosalind and Orlando first fall in love is a moment of real spectacle in this production and I felt that more could have been made of their meeting and love at first sight instead of all the bells and whistles thrown into presenting the match itself, amusing though it is. That said, as the play goes on, Rosalind and Orlando’s relationship develops into something that left me charmed and totally invested in their escapades, and thanks to Rosalie and Joe, I had the biggest smile on my face and loved the humour and adorable absurdity of it all!
Paul Chahidi shone as Jacques, the melancholy cynic of the piece. Unlike the major characters, Jacques is an observer, a thinker and doesn’t take an active role, instead serving as a dose of melancholy reality against those around him. What Paul managed to do with the role was really interesting in that he was perfectly sombre (I especially loved his All the World’s A Stage monologue) but he also had flashes of wonderful humour and made me laugh out loud, my eye was often drawn to him when he was onstage with other characters to see how he would react as his expressions and body language were wonderfully animated and amusing.
The amusement continued thanks to Mark Benson as Touchstone, who like Paul married wisdom with hilarity very very well, amusing and making me think in equal measure. I hope I can see him on stage again in the future, as it was a pleasure after seeing and enjoying what I have of his television work.
When I first began reading and studying Shakespeare, I suppose you could call me a purist; the idea of adapting and cutting the text used to annoy and petrify me. Over recent years though, I have mellowed and had the privilege of seeing three marvellous productions this one included, each adapting and interpreting the text in different ways. What they have taught me is that adaption is a necessary part of the nature of the beast, and if my experiences of seeing Shakespeare onstange continue to challenge, excite and be as refreshing as As You Like It was, I love and will continually be grateful for the idea that it is possible to have the best of both worlds.
As You Like It runs at the National until March 5th, 2016. You can book your tickets here: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/as-you-like-it
The production is also broadcast to live to cinemas on February 25th. For your nearest cinema and to book, head over to: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/52844-as-you-like-it