As you like it at the RSC

Review by Peter Buckroyd

As You Like It

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

At first you might think that having a production of this play predominantly with actors who were in a 1978 production might be a gimmick. In a remarkably obtuse review in i newspaper Fiona Mountford clearly does. But ignore that negative nonsense.

In many ways Omar Elerian’s is a remarkable production. It is one thing having actors (now mainly in their 70s) supplemented by four young actors to replace those who are no longer able to perform. It is quite another to experience Shakespeare’s love story through the eyes of older people. Of course, for many in the audience retirement represents the Forest of Arden. Who doesn’t know someone who had to take retirement earlier than they wanted and ends up being at a loose end? This life, though, doesn’t suit everyone. Jacques, for example, will have nothing to do with the fantasy of retirement being everything one has ever really desired. And I (as another old person) know quite a lot of people who have fallen out because of sibling rivalry and often about money (inheritance, usually). I also know some old people who have fallen in love or are searching for love. Of course it is perfectly obvious in this production that the actors are not pretending to be young people. They are using themselves to frame the characters. That is why there is a lovely wrestling scene at the beginning where Charles and Orlando engage in a brief arm wrestling contest. It is, after all, a metaphor anyway.

But the 1978 references don’t end there. Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s design is also firmly in the 1970s. I saw many productions in London then which had the whole cast on stage all or almost all of the time, constantly drawing our attention to the fact that we were watching a play (fashionably called intertextuality these days) and that the creation of a production was a collaborative effort. Bare stages were fairly new then as were the inconsistent wearing of costumes. Audiences then liked to have some fun costumes (Touchstone is used for this purpose here) but also needed to be reminded that they were watching a construct.  And an important part of this is the interactions between actors (not characters) and audience members and the interpolation of ad libs. Elerian makes sure that there is plenty of that here, kicked off by the modern informal Prologue given by Martin Bertenshaw who later plays Oliver.

There are three more interesting directorial and designer decisions, too. Totally unexpected was the descent from the heavens of a rock band of three in a machine and Andy Taylor on the stage for ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’. But when you think about it this also belonged to the period. There were lots of 70s and 80s tableaux as well and perhaps more controversial the revelation of a forest at the very end when the backdrop is removed.

I was surprised what an important part Touchstone plays. James Hayes has a lot of audience interaction, wears a range of wonderful colourful costumes eventually, after the interval, particularly his hilarious motley one and amusingly displays his knobbly knees at one point. It prompted me to think that he, too, plays several of the seven ages of man and also eventually marries Audrey (Cleo Sylvestre in a most unusual interpretation of the character) for companionship, as many older people do. And Jacques (Oliver Cotton) is also representative of many older retired people who when they are on their own retreat into a hermit-like world of their own. The well known (and therefore treacherously difficult to deliver) ‘All the world’s a stage was beautifully delivered with him sitting down and depressedly cynical.

I was delighted by several unexpected touches. The lights which descend to stage level function as a swing at one point. There is a brilliant little interpolation about Marlowe and the ‘little room’. Adam is played by a coat. Touchstone is reluctant to give Orlando his watch back. Le Beau (Rose Wardlaw) is made to speak French because the character has a French name. The different coloured lights for the forest are a splendid idea.

But perhaps the most stunning and enjoyable part of the play is the exquisite verse speaking from Maureen Beattie as Celia and Geraldine James as Rosalind. You will not hear better.   

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