Directed by Omar Elerian, this Royal Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It brings a fresh perspective to the comedy, turning the focus onto age and the ageing process.
The play is set in a device in which a group of ageing actors are attempting to recreate a production they performed 45 years ago. Initially, the sets and costumes are in their imagination and they sit on a largely bare stage recalling the past. They then perform the play as their older selves. And this is really effective. Rather than being a production where an older actor is, somewhat awkwardly, playing a much younger role, here they are shouting their age from the rooftops, creating comedy from the constant references to them being ‘young’ or ‘lusty youths’ while sporting grey hair and even walking sticks.
The theme is milked for all it’s worth – fight scenes have the actors wincing at the fear of injury, lines are forgotten and prompted and there are constant looks to the audience at some of the more incongruous speeches.
The audience is immediately asked to be complicit with the device when James Hayes, as the actor playing the fool Touchstone, explains the scenario. Hayes continues to converse with the audience throughout the show, constantly reconnecting with us and bringing an additional element of dry humour as he raises an eyebrow at certain lines or jokingly shows off his costumes – not least a Frankie Goes to Hollywood-inspired T-shirt emblazoned with the word ‘RELAX’ as he begins his own romantic endeavours.
Seeing the production through the eyes of these older actors brings new light to many of its themes and speeches. Much of the play focuses on sudden love and we are being asked why can’t a spark be ignited in the heart of a 70-year old just as readily as in that of a 20-something? And we see how the themes of family rivalry can become so much more bitter the longer they last.
It also brings a touch of poignancy to the piece. Elerian was largely prompted to re-focus the play by the famous ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech delivered by the contemplative Jaques and that speech takes on an additional resonance in this production.
Christopher Saul has currently stepped in at short notice to play Jaques due to the indisposition of Oliver Cotton and he performs this speech seated at the back of the stage in jeans and a T-shirt. Stripped back to basics, his words takes on a terrible sadness as our own lives pass so briefly before us. And when Saul’s character pauses, needing a prompt to remember, we feel all too keenly the vulnerability that can come with age.
There is so much talent and stage experience packed into this production. Malcolm Sinclair is a lovesick Orlando, who mopes through the would-be forest pinning his verses to Rosalind to make-believe trees while Geraldine James gives us a wry Rosalind who can verbally spar with anyone and yet can also fall head-over-heels in love like a giddy teenager.
Maureen Beattie’s Celia is an energetic and enthusiastic supporter for Rosalind, veering between egging her on and advising caution. And David Fielder’s lovestruck Silvius is so pathetic in his wooing of the less-than-enthusiastic Phoebe, played by Celia Bannerman, that the entire audience is willing him to succeed.
Alongside all of this, four younger actors take on many of the smaller roles and support the older cast as they attempt to recall their memories of the past.
The set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita sees us in a largely empty rehearsal room but makes good use of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre space, such as when a group of rock musicians descend from the skies to lead the actors in a high-spirited rendition of the song “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind”. And she has a few surprises up her sleeve as the show progresses.
Essentially what Elerian is giving us is a good-natured comedic romp packed with laughter. His staging offers plenty of opportunities for additional humour while also reminding us of the breadth of experience, not just of our older actors, but of all older people. In a society so often focused on youth and newness, it’s a timely reminder.