While this is often presented as jolly romp, Michael Boyd's production, which has transferred from the Courtyard to the Roundhouse, has drawn out many of the darker elements of the play. Neither Duke Frederick's court, where genteel manners mask an oppressive regime nor the exiled Duke's sylvan life, where erstwhile courtiers shiver from the cold, are seen as earthly paradises and there's a grimness behind the humour.
The highlight of the production was undoubtedly the interplay between Katy Stephens' outstanding Rosalind and Mariah Gale's Celia. Stephens invests Rosalind with a swagger and a deep sexual yearning for Orlando, really exploring the power of her male identity. I was reminded of the way that Brecht's Shen-Te becomes a different person in her mail guise and similarly Stephens has joyfully seized the opportunity to explore all aspects of her passion. The culmination of this journey was that, instead of the usual epilogue, she sings an unaccompanied song, as if she was finally found her voice.
Stephens' performance was beautifully complemented by Gale's Celia who is considerably more interesting and passionate than the rather colourless young woman that many productions present her to be – a centrepiece of the second half was a dream sequence in which gets to explore her erotic desires, just as Rosalind has been given a freedom to experiment with her sexuality in her disguise. What a pity then that neither Jonjo O'Neill's colourless Orlando nor Colin Aitken's bland Oliver could match these two high-spirited young women.
The other highlight is Richard Katz's sparse-framed, pale-faced Touchstone whose doleful eyes and mad-scientist hairstyle depict zaniness and who provides plenty of laughs but who also manages to draw out the bitterness of a man wrenched from his comfortable courtly existence, There's also a chillingly sinister Duke Senior from Sandy Neilson, while Sophie Russell's lascivious Audrey provided many of the laughs in the latter half of the play.
Is it the fashion to present Jacques as some hippie troubadour these days? Following Stephen Dillane's Bob Dylan turn in Sam Mendes' production last year, we're presented with Forbes Masson's strolling minstrel, singing the songs customarily allocated to Amiens. While Masson sings beautifully and offers us a wry commentary on the events unfolding,there's little of the melancholic meditation of one of Shakespeare's more enigmatic characters.
Perhaps Boyd thought there had been too much darkness in a play that, after all, is a pastoral comedy. And while there were times when it flagged, the performances of Stephens and Gale were a delight.
- Maxwell Cooter