Review: As You Like It (Richmond Theatre)

Shared Experience and Theatre by the Lake’s touring production comes to Richmond

There's a moment in Shared Experience's As You Like It, a touring version of their Theatre by the Lake production, when theatrical magic happens. Rosalind (Jessica Hayles) and Celia (Layo-Christina Akinlude), forced to flee the dulled, office-like court of Duke Frederick (a cantankerous Alex Parry), push two huge flats aside, revealing a vast expanse of green space. What had once been a desaturated two-dimensional conference room is transformed into a bright, verdant and quirky Forest of Arden.

A deer trots along the stage. Birds fly overhead. There's a telephone box stuffed full of books. For no apparent reason, there’s a water cooler among the trees. Designer Libby Watson lets the imagination run wild, supported by fantastic lighting from Chris Davey and video design from Dan Denton and Ian Galloway. In a single motion, both the stage and play open up – anything seems possible, out in the pastoral copses of middle England.

It's a shame, then, that the rest of As You Like It rarely lives up to this sense of free-spiritedness. The majority of the show is sadly more Shakespeare-by-numbers. For all its quaint charm, director Kate Saxon is perfunctory with her interpretation of the text – scenes are pushed through, lines are delivered, and, compared to the bold primary colours of the set and costume, the characters and dialogue feel somehow beige. The court fool Touchstone and shepherdess Audrey's romantic escapades, to pick an example, normally a comedic highpoint, felt largely muted.

Which, considering the themes of the play, is a strange result. This is a piece usually replete with irony and hilarity. Shakespeare deals with social conflicts, relevant conflicts – the corrupt government versus pastoral living, the role of man versus the role of woman, the lovelorn versus lovesick. It all amounts to a whirling farce that should have comedic beats at every turn.

The music accompaniment provided by five of the nine cast members improves the show’s pace in places, but the ensemble never really clicks in a meaningful sense – Josie Dunn’s energetic clarinet performance existing in isolation rather than being part of a uniform whole. These accompaniments are also too sporadic, too fleeting, to have a wider impact on the overall piece.

There is a grand turn from Hayles, bringing a savviness and yearning inquisitiveness to one of the Bard's most distinctive female roles. Her silent movement sequences, delivered alone on stage, expose the suppressed optimism of this woman scorned and banished. They are beautifully choreographed by Sian Williams. A flash of excitement and ingenuity amidst the mundane. Akinlude also conjures a laugh from the slightest facial expression.

But overall Shared Experience seems too afraid to tamper with Shakespeare’s words. This could have burst into an exciting production but ended up feeling too idle, too bland to leave a lasting impression.

As You Like It runs at Richmond Theatre until 12 November ahead of a UK tour.

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