As You Like It, Shakespeare’s ‘happiest’ play, has brought little joy to the RSC this season, its subdued and fairly pedestrian production attracting poor critical notices. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, by contrast, succeeds where Michael Boyd’s company fails; outing the comedy largely closeted at the Swan.
It’s hard to believe it’s only the fourth season by the Bristol group whose achievement under the direction of Andrew Hilton has already attracted the attention of the Barbican Theatre, formerly the London home of the RSC.
Where As You Like It, at three-and-a-half hours long, drags its heels at Stratford, despite some strong individual performances, it fairly capers at Bristol, thanks to strong ensemble playing, gimmick-free production and an infectious revelling in and unravelling of a play whose literary-ness can make it difficult to find one’s way through.
The plotting is perfunctory: Duke Senior has been usurped by his scheming brother and has fled with a handful of lords into the Forest of Arden. His daughter Rosalind, who had remained behind at court with her friend and cousin Celia, is subsequently also forced to take to the woods - disguised as a man - as is her would-be lover Orlando.
Saskia Portway excels as Rosalind, finding a winning blend of self-possession and wide-eyed helplessness in the face of love which escapes Nina Sosanya at Stratford. Peter Clifford as Duke Frederick offers a fine study of power-hungry paranoia, while Rupert Ward-Lewis is a suitably dashing and ardent Orlando. There are strong comic performances too from David Plimmer as the jester Touchstone and John Mackay as the melancholic Jaques.
The set, as ever, is simple with a few functional props, the central uprights of the converted warehouse serving variously as pillars and trees. The action is (unfussily) located in the 18th century, in contrast to the 19th at Stratford.
While the RSC continues to struggle to define its role in the 21st century, the marvellous Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, on a fraction of the Stratford company’s budget, continues to go from strength to strength.