Although less well known than to the eternally popular A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It makes a wonderful companion to it With the action taking place in a forest, away from societal norms and the etiquette of courtly life, the characters are able to search for themselves as well as each other.
As You Like It is Midsummer without the necessity for magic: the illusion of acting and role-play is what enables the drama to develop and bring about a good end. While the heroine Rosalind speaks of conjuring, it is her playing of many parts that results in such a charming conclusion.
Custom/Practice and Graffiti Productions have a young ensemble performing at the Lion and Unicorn theatre, which has both advantages and drawbacks. Oliver Mott is well-cast as Orlando his initial Russell Tovey-style surliness giving way to a tender romantic quality reminiscent of Julian Rhind-Tutt. Equally enjoyable are Celia (Olivia Scott-Taylor) whose girlish impetuousness is excitingly infectious and Rosalind (Rebecca Loudon) whose journey during the performance is joyously down-to-earth.
These three really make the production shine. Mott makes Orlando's inability to speak to Rosalind genuinely funny because it seems wholly understandable given Loudon's sincerity and wit: who wouldn't be dumbstruck by such confidence? The friendship between the two cousins is exuberant and Scott-Taylor and Loudon display excellent chemistry as they discuss the pitfalls of love and struggle to deal with their youthful emotions. Loudon is the real star of the piece, however, and her "I'll have no husband if you be not him" speech makes for a finale as touching as I've ever seen.
The freshness of the acting is not always a good thing, though. The usurping Duke Frederick (Chetan Pathak) is camp, bitchy and not entirely convincing. Pathak also plays the former Duke exiled in the forest and has more success with his portrayal of a quixotic nobleman, mellifluously expounding the joys of nature. The jester Touchstone (Lorenzo Martelli) is also difficult to judge. Given the modern dress of the production, his clownish get-up is rather out of place and detracts from the more naturalistic elements of the piece. I sympathise, as the clowns are often the hardest characters to update in modern productions of Shakespeare, but I'm not entirely sure Custom/Practice hit the right note as Martelli seems more boisterous than witty.
Yet there are some wonderful moments from the rest of the ensemble. The melancholic Jaques (Fred Gray) is both funny and wise, and his 'seven ages of man' speech is a lovely performance piece, ridiculing life with an incisive truthfulness. Richard Kiess is also brilliant as Silvius, the wet rustic harping on an unworthy shepherdess, and his gormless yearning is a real treat for the audience.
One of As You Like It's main themes is the battle for supremacy between fortune and nature, reflected in the heartless corruption of the city and the liberation of the forest. So it is telling that the second half of this production, situated within walls painted with woodland greenery and dappled lighting, is hugely more enjoyable than the first. Of course, the forest we are seeing is as artificial as the city backdrop at the production's opening, a point which is underlined by Loudon's epilogue. Stepping out of her happy ending, which freeze-frames around her, she is exhausted, but happy. The epilogue is not one well-known for its witty couplets, but it is her telling of it that makes it memorable. It gives the production a sincerity that can't fail to charm, conjuring theatrical magic from timeless language.