thu 30/05/2024

As You Like It, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

As You Like It, National Theatre

As You Like It, National Theatre

A magical Forest of Arden indeed, though not without its thorns

Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) and Orlando (Joe Bannister) banter their way to a warmly believable loveBill Knight for theartsdesk

Rosalind’s “working-day world” takes an unexpectedly literal turn in Polly Findlay’s sparky new As You Like It for the National Theatre. An opening sequence, set in a windowless trading-floor, opens out in one of the year’s most bewitching set transformations into a brown and scrubby Forest of Arden, whose flowers bloom all the brighter for their delayed appearance.

The action too, stilted at first, blossoms as Arden works its magic, delaying but not ultimately denying us the pastoral comedy we signed up for.

Findlay’s thoughtful production refuses to take Shakespeare’s magical forest at face value. Like the woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this space-beyond-authority is capable of darkness as well as joy, and redemption must be earned. The desks and chairs that make up the office of the opening may have become trees, but their metamorphosis is fragile – one of perception rather than substance.

Things start badly. A strip-lit office plays out all the aggressive clichés of urban office-life – workers eat, labour, rest at the signal of bells, like human automatons, and the only greenery comes from the stunted bonsai trees that sit sadly on each desk. It’s unclear where Rosalie Craig’s Rosalind or Patsy Ferran’s Celia fit in, walking around in pyjamas at one point, nor why the wrestling match (surely the least exciting sequence of the play) needs to be quite so extended in its eager take on the stagy posturing of Mexican wrestling.

Once the Duchy is dispatched, however, Findlay’s production undergoes its own sea-change, becoming something altogether more sensitive. No broad yokels here (though an inspired flock of sheep pick up the comic slack), just a collection of good-natured folk who are down on their luck, stage-managed by Corin (Alan Williams) who wields his shepherd’s crook like Prospero’s staff, quietly directing the action from the wings. Ken Nwosu’s Silvius is sweetly insistent rather than outright stupid, tussling with Gemma Lawrence’s understated Phebe. Even Audrey (played with gentle Irish burr by Siobhan McSweeney) is no caricature.

These characters provide the promising backdrop to the production’s real draw – a central trio who feed off each other’s energy and scramble to grab the most delight from Shakespeare’s most whimsical love-story. Rosalie Craig’s luminous Rosalind – the NT’s first since 1979 – is all poised grace and direct gaze: who wouldn’t fall for her (in either of her incarnations)? Joe Bannister’s Orlando doesn’t stand a chance. This hapless charmer might have a little too much of Clapham-via-Cambridge about him, but is amiable and endlessly watchable, generating real warmth with Craig. It’s the partnership of Craig and Ferran’s goofy, gloriously deadpan Celia (pictured above with Craig and Mark Benton's Touchstone), however, that almost steals the evening.

The wonderful Paul Chahidi (pictured left) makes much of Jacques, under- rather than overworking his posturing, and undermining expectation with his sincerity. Benton’s Touchstone, by contrast, remains stubbornly unfunny, and John Ramm’s exiled Duke gets lost in all the goings-on.

Lizzie Clachan’s set is the inspired scaffolding from which all of Findlay’s subsequent ideas hang so neatly, aided by Jon Clark’s delicate lighting. Hidden away in her dangling “trees” are company members who provide a living foley accompaniment to the action, whether rustling leaves, drizzling rain or beating bird-wings. It’s all rather Complicite-lite, but none the worse for it. The sound-effects play off Orlando Gough’s score, which treads lightly between pastiche and innovation. On its own it’s a beautiful thing, but appended to this particular production it lacks the uncomplicated rhythmic drive, the unmediated joy to provide a really satisfying final jig, and tends to halt the action rather than aid it along.

There’s good and bad here, but the overall effect is one of delight. You surrender willingly to the metamorphosis of a forest all the more magical for its sober realities, wooed with just enough wit and whimsy.


Lizzie Clachan’s set is the inspired scaffolding from which all of Findlay’s subsequent ideas hang so neatly


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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no wonder Jaques is depressed [and I agree a great performanc]e so was I -not much romance or magic here I am afraid and I struggled to make sense of the verse-a shame

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