Bristol's Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory opens its fifteenth spring season with As You Like It, directed by Andrew Hilton with his customary clarity and attention to detail.
Performed in the round in the intimate clutter-free setting of the Tobacco Factory theatre, and with scene changes signalled by subtle lighting changes and sound design, the production moves confidently from some of Shakespeare's clumsiest exposition to one of his most joyous conclusions.
The play stands or falls by its Rosalind and Dorothea Myer-Bennett hits all the right notes. She conveys the joy and confusions of one giddy with new love, the pleasure of a young woman discovering the freedoms a masculine disguise confers, and the wisdom of someone whose understanding of the human heart enables her to arrange the perfect happy ending for herself and her fellow lovers. She is funny, touching, brutally candid on occasion (she advises Phebe to "sell when you can, you are not for all markets") and possessed of a playful, satirical intelligence. She is well matched by her "love-shak'd" Orlando, not the easiest of parts to play, but Jack Wharrier, a newcomer to the company, invests him with charm, ardour and steadfastness.
The ever reliable Paul Currier's morose and bibulous Jaques, a wit bemused by the follies of mankind, gives a faultless rendition of his celebrated soliloquy and provides a constantly amusing foil to his fellow exiles. Chris Bianchi doubles as both usurped and usurping Dukes, the former great-coated in a distinctly chilly Forest of Arden, the latter in the dark military uniform of a modern dictator.
As always at this address, there is high-quality casting in depth and the smaller roles are vividly filled. Daisy May sure-footedly charts Celia's journey from adored and adoring cousin, through exasperated gooseberry, to young woman ready for her own heart to be "tripped up in an instant". Matthew Thomas gives us a more complex Oliver than usual; even in the opening scenes, we see a man struggling with his own capacity for cruelty. In a few brief lines, Hannah Lee as Hisperia chills us with a portrayal of an informer in a police state; later she delights as an Audrey who even as her marriage to Touchstone approaches cannot resist looking round flirtatiously for other possibilities.
Numerous such directorial touches illuminate character and theme; indeed Hisperia is an inspired tweak, her lines adapted from those of another character.
The production lacks a little pace in some of the earlier scenes, especially those wintry scenes amongst the banished courtiers in Arden, but that will no doubt come with time. Even the talented Vic Llewellyn can't do much with Touchstone, though, routinely described as the least funny clown in Shakespeare; he has charm, but few of the jokes hit home.
Those quibbles aside, this is a highly enjoyable production with a superb central performance and another feather in Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory's cap. The company has gone from strength to strength in recent years and will tour this play and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia to several venues this spring.