With the notable exception of Much Ado About Nothing, I just don’t find it that funny. Maybe it’s unfamiliarity (I only ever read the tragedies at school), maybe I've been unlucky with the productions I've seen or maybe it’s just my sense of humour. I don’t know, they’re just not usually my bag.
But it’s always lovely to have your expectations confounded and the NT’s production of As You Like It does just that.
The central plot of AYLI is the story of star crossed lovers Rosalind and Orlando who fall in love at first sight but are split when both are forced to flee for their lives into the mysterious Forest of Arden. Complications (and occasional hilarity) ensue but ultimately they are reunited, get married and live happily ever after. Aw.
So far so Disney. But where this production, directed by Polly Findlay, excels is in playing down the syrup - and to an extent the humour - and playing up the naturalism.
This approach isn't unproblematic. For one thing it makes the purely comedic characters, Touchstone in particular, very out of place and consequently largely unfunny, which is a shame as Mark Benton (playing Touchstone) is a great comedy actor who gets robbed of the potential to be a really great Shakespearean clown. It also makes the pre-Forest portion of the play feel oddly disjointed. The action is transported to a technicolour cliché of an office, where random characters wander about for no logical reason, and overlong wrestling matches are staged. It feels like it belongs in another, much less good, production altogether and left me convinced I was going to have a fairly miserable evening.
But the change of setting to the Forest of Arden breathes new life into the production and introduces the real star - the incredible design. The transformation between the two locations is stunning and the undoubted highlight of the show. Rows of office chairs, desks and lamps, connected by previously unseen chains, are dragged upwards so they hang from the ceiling to create the trees of the forest. Cast members dressed all in black climb into the trees where they remain, creating a surprisingly effective soundscape (wind through the trees, animal noises, bird song, raindrops) for the rest of the night. It’s inventive minimalism at its most beautiful - award nominations for designer Lizzie Clachan, please - the only downside of which is that it rather overshadows the action onstage.
Which is a shame as much of said action is really rather good, especially where the delightful Patsy Ferran is involved. Ferran is a near-perfect Celia. Playful and deadpan, she steals every scene she’s in and, importantly, offers a much more convincing articulation of the punchdrunk love that drives this play’s plot than any of the rest of the cast. Rosalie Craig is a decidedly modern Rosalind, particularly good as her male alter ego, and Joe Bannister an effectingly lovelorn Orlando, though both could do with an injection of the sort of joyous, maddening love that Ferran is so good at. Paul Chahidi has a couple of gorgeous moments as Jaques, his ‘all the world’s a stage’ speech is really beautiful (even if some stupid fuck let their phone ring through it the night we were in), though overall he struggles to make much of an impression, or that much sense of his character. And massive kudos are due to the supporting cast who provide, amongst other things, my second favourite moment of the night as they appear en masse as a flock of sheep, on hands and knees wearing white woolly jumpers. It’s as gorgeously silly and irreverent as it sounds.
Despite my misgivings, I really enjoyed this production and found it surprisingly clear for a text that I had never encountered before. It didn't completely convince me of the merits of Shakespeare as a comedy writer, but it’s fun, inventive and just so beautiful. Well worth your time.
As You Like It plays in the Olivier theatre at the NT until 5th March.