Having been bowled over by her production of King John last year, I was eagerly anticipating Maria Aberg's first main house outing for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her inventive spirit and bold risk-taking are traits that can really flourish in a supportive environment and I sincerely hope that she remains with the RSC for a good number of years to come.
Having said that, I don't count this production a complete success. As You Like It is one of Shakespeare's more uneven comedies and Aberg does not seem to really know how to fully resolve the tonal shifts into a satisfying whole.
The over-choreographed movements for the court followers in the first court scene are far too distracting at a moment when the audience should be focussed on Rosalind and Celia. Similarly the pacing of the first half really does need attention. With a running time coming in well over the published 3 hours 15 minutes, this is a production that needs to find more cuts.
Aberg also seems to lack a little trust in Shakespeare's comic characters. There is, for me, an occasional over-reliance on physical comedy at the expense of the language. I appreciate that it's a script with a huge amount of intricate wordplay but I believe that modern audiences can cope with it - particularly when you have as strong a Touchstone as Nicolas Tennant.
It's in the Forest of Arden where this production really comes alive. Laura Marling's modern folk music is used to great effect, transporting us to the bohemian world of summer festivals. There's a palpable sense of joy in the music-making of the play - a spirit I do not feel I've really encountered in Stratford before.
In Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann, Aberg is working with the two most exciting actors in the company today. For all my reservations about pacing and other issues, the opportunity to see them working together is one that theatregoers should embrace with open arms.
Orlando is a tricky role for any young actor - it is very easy to overplay the less sympathetic aspects of his character and leave the audience confused as to why Rosalind would fall so hard and so fast for him. We have no such difficulty with Waldmann's Orlando. Even without his impressive physique, he has a winning way about him with a wonderful engagement with the text and captures the impetuosity and passion of this slighted young noble perfectly.
But Nixon is, undoubtedly, the star of the show - and quite rightly too. Her Rosalind is pitch-perfect and I have never seen a more convincing transformation into Ganymede. Nixon handles the changeable nature of her character brilliantly - using her expressive voice and physicality to carry the audience with her as Rosalind makes her emotional journey through the Forest of Arden.
For my money, Pippa Nixon is the brightest star in the RSC ensemble at the moment and I hope that they continue to nurture and cherish her.
The chemistry is incredible, and you believe in their relationship completely. But their performances do not dominate so completely that their colleagues aren't given their chance to shine: Joanna Horton makes more of Celia than I thought possible (given how underwritten the role often seems) and I could listen to Cliff Burnett (Duke Senior) for hours - he has one of those voices that just oozes class and charm.
After an uncertain start, Aberg's As You Like It ends in a riot of romance, rain and real fun.