NOTE: This review dates from August 2005 and this production's original run in Stratford-upon-Avon.
According to taste, As You Like It is either a sublime comedy - fast-paced, moving, at once accessible and enjoyable - or a work that has too much to say about what was once intimately interesting and now is not.
Unfortunately, I take the latter view. Admirers will no doubt find much entertainment in this, the final offering in the RSC’s season of Comedies, which is directed by Dominic Cooke with thought and dash. At the risk of derision though, I find this a ‘problem’ play and can only wave to fans across leagues of ocean.
All the usual elements of a Shakespearean comedy – flight from the city to the countryside, cross-dressing - are present and correct. What the play also has, though, is some of the most unfathomable and unfunny comedy - to these ears at least.
Music plays a large role in the play. Indeed, people have suggested As You Like It is best considered as a proto-comedy musical, something which wouldn’t properly be realised in England for more than a century with The Beggar’s Opera. Appropriately then, Cooke's production begins with all the cast coming on stage to sing a rousing, acapella version of Under the Greenwood Tree.
The tree also looms large in this Forest of Arden, with a single massive conifer rising from the stage into the rafters in Rae Smith’s clean design. The switch from the court of the usurping Duke Frederick to the exiled court of Duke Senior is achieved by a simple change of costume.
Barnaby Kay is an ardent, vigorous Orlando and the early wrestling scene is the best I’ve seen. Lia Williams is tough and touching as Rosalind and Joseph Mydell is fine as Jacques, if a little over-ponderous. Paul Chahidi, excellent this season, battles valiantly, but largely in vain against his dull lines, as Touchstone; and there is good work too from John Mackay as Oliver.
I didn’t warm to it; others will.
- Pete Wood