George Bernard Shaw must be revolving in his grave. Barely has spring sprung and already four major productions of his least favourite Shakespeare play ever have hoved into view. This, the first, is the opening salvo in the RSC’s inaugural season under the stewardship of new artistic director Michael Boyd and, as such, is keenly awaited.
Well, I come not to bury Boyd, or more specifically Gregory Thompson, who directs, but, while there is much to commend, the production overall is a disappointment. Most curious is that after plumping so unashamedly for a crowd-pleaser this production of the play should receive such a muted reception, at least on the night that I saw it.
Key Shakespearean comic staples are present and correct in this adaptation – updated to the Victorian age. As with Midsummer Night’s Dream there is a flight from court to the freedom of the forest; romance, complicated by the assumption of the heroine, Rosalind, of the identity of a man (Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night), affording her the opportunity to test her would-be lover’s fidelity, and caustic commentary, courtesy of the former court fool, Touchstone.
There are some fine performances too, notably by John Killoran as Touchstone; David Fielder as the melancholic Jacques; a very promising RSC debut from Natasha Gordon as the proud shepherdess Phebe, and from Nina Sosanya (most recently seen in The Vortex at the Donmar) as Rosalind who is clearly an actress to watch. However, while she offers a commanding presence, she fails to convince she is one "fathoms deep" in love.
I wasn’t convinced either by Colin Peters’ set, which variously converts from a hill to a stage to the Forest of Arden. Although ingenious, it seemed unnecessarily cumbersome and unhelpful to efforts to create a sense of the pastoral. In addition, the doubling up of the cast as trees (and even sheep) in one scene, while amusing, moved at least one critic, frustrated at not being able to view the action clearly, to get out of his seat and stand in the aisle.
Of all the Bard’s plays, as critic Frank Kermode notes, As You Like It is perhaps the one which has most "slipped over our horizon" by being so of its time. And at three-and-a-half hours long you’ll like it – but not, perhaps, enough.