The experts agree that Shakespeare wrote As You Like It in 1599, about the same time as The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, all of which have challenging, central parts for women, roles that would of course have been played by a boy actor. It seems likely a particularly talented child inspired these parts and even today, it is the performance of these that largely determines the success or failure of a production.
No need to worry – in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It, which has just opened at the revamped Novello Theatre in London (the old Strand), Lia Williams is entirely up to the challenge of Rosalind. In long-limbed awkward youthfulness she’s believable enough to spend much of the play in boy’s disguise without being ridiculous, yet her emotions are always close enough to the surface that this is far from mere masquerade.
Yet she’s matched and balanced by Amanda Harris’s expressive Celia — played for laughs rather than deep feeling, but they are great laughs — and Barnaby Kay’s suitably leading man — sexy Orlando. I saw today’s matinee production, and the teenage girls in the audience definitely approved of the latter.
But you didn’t need to be seduced by youthful appeal to enjoy this show. To the purse-lipped elderly woman in front of me who complained I was laughing too loud (and she later accused the woman in front of her of wearing earrings that were “too sparkly”) — yes, this is a comedy. You are meant to laugh, and it is something you can be sure to do in this production.
There’s a magical touch to this world, greatly helped by the staging and lighting. (And the glittering restored mirrors and gilt of the fin de siecle theatre are an appropriate setting for it.) A truly impressive old fir tree dominates the stage, filtering the light for the Forest of Arden scenes into a mystical gloom, and decorated with twinkling lights, matching the sparkling tiaras in the early scenes, as the carefree Rosalind and Celia trip around the darkening court ruled by their uncle and father, the increasingly paranoid and unbalanced usurping Duke Frederick (Jonathan Newth). Yet later the same branches allow the sun to shine through as misunderstandings are finally resolved and everyone prepares to live happily every after.
The political elements of this play never work so well as the comedy, and here it is not helped by the fact that the exiled former duke, Rosalind’s father, is also played by Newth. There’s probably some attempt at deepening the political strands here — tyranny and democracy being sides of the same face — but the two characters are insufficiently differentiated, and both characters are stiff and inhuman.
As always with the RSC, the minor parts are played with careful attention and class. Paul Chahidi as Touchstone wasn’t the best fool I’ve ever seen from the company, although good enough, but Patrick Waldron as the faithful old Adam, who saves Orlando from his unfraternal sibling Oliver, is moving while staying away from cliché (within the considerable responsibility of playing the part thought to have been the Bard’s own). Joseph Mydell as Jacques, the melancholy forest lord who has job of delivering “all the world’s a stage” line as though it was fresh and new, is powerful and affecting, managing never to descend into bathos.
The only other criticism I might make is at the pace and length. With a 20-minute interval the production runs to three hours and 15 minutes, on the long side, and I could have done with a bit less dancing and singing, and mournful sitting around small fires, and a bit more pace.
Nonetheless, I will remember the jaunty “male” Rosalind and the expressive face-pulling of Celia long after I’ve forgotten the numb buttocks.