What: As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company
When: 21st February 2019
Kimberly Sykes’ direction of the current Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of “As You Like It” has many strengths but there are some self-created weaknesses which it seems to me have little to do with the writing of the Bard of Avon. The peculiar things is that they are similar flaws to those present in other recent productions by the RSC and those were handled by other directors. I hate to be repeating myself but… What is going on here?
Now I can be an arch-conservative when it comes to Shakespeare so I took the time to inquire of some fellow-critics whether they felt the same and surely it comes across in the reviews. The Guardian is no protector of tradition but their Lucy Phelps has the following to say:
“There’s an awful lot of gender switching, which initially feels fun and fitting – since much of the plot revolves around disguise and gender flips – but ultimately proves distracting. Without a clear reason for the gender-fluid casting, it becomes just another confusion – another plot twist to resolve – in an already fiendishly complex and plot-driven play.”
As I have indicated in my previous reviews of the last two years’ productions, this has been a constant fixation in the Stratford-upon-Avon company’s output. At the same time, their programme essays (see Professor Melinda Sanchez’s “Gender Expressions” tell the audience that this is a natural feature of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m not sure that they can have their cake and eat it.
Anyway, leaving those grumbles to one side for a moment, let’s not forget to notice that for the first half of its length, this production looks like it is going to be a tour-de-force. The lead characters of Rosalind (Lucy Phelps), Celia (Sophie Khan Levy) and Orlando (David Ajao) are played with energy and with a very exact grasp on the motivations and intentions which spur them forward in life.
I particularly warmed to Ms Khan Levy whose humour and loyalty to Ms Phelps’ Rosalind captures Celia’s devotion to her “coz” perfectly. Ms Phelps is excellent too but I recall that Katy Stephens in 2009 perhaps captured the soul of Rosalind slightly better.
Sandy Grierson’s Touchstone (a character quite often unloved) is not difficult to warm to here. His physical abilities and deft vocal touches only add to the production.
Anthony Byrne, as the two dukes is solid if not remarkable. Richard Clews as Adam get us off in the right direction and in the first part of the play, there is seldom a foot put wrong by any of the cast.
The second half does, however, get a little untidy and messy and most of this has nothing to do with the many subplots which are tied together in the mass wedding at the conclusion.They must be laid at the door of the director (Ms Sykes) and the producer (Zoe Donegan).
By the time we get to the forest, we have found that the shepherd, Sylvius, is now a shepherdess called Sylvia and is in love with Phebe (Phoebe here). Now, Phoebe falls for Rosalind / Ganymede when she sees him/her in disguise as a flat-chested male youth. But this is not extravagant enough for tonight’s production rather we must believe that Shakespeare’s play is modern enough to expand to the notion that when she realises that Rosalind is a woman, she is then able to be married without objection to the shepherdess, Sylvia. Are you keeping up? Pansexual, indeed.
Not all this gender-switching is simply for the purpose of exploring a contemporary issue unsuccessfully. Giving the role of Jaques (Jacques here) (not of the De Boys family, de Bois here) to a female actor in the person of Sophie Stanton gives us the opportunity of hearing a consummate rendering of the seven ages of man speech. Ms Stanton is given little other opportunity to shine but she does excel here.
An otherwise minimal stage set is transformed by a huge puppet representation of the god Hymen which appears a little unwieldy, untidy and strange – a little like the second half of the production.
The RSC provide their own undoing here. The play before the interval is a triumph. After the interval it falls by its own innovation. Thankfully, Lucy Phelps, David Ajao and, particularly, Sophie Khan Levy rise above it all, remaining exuberant to the end.
Maybe they can rescue the second half as performances continue to tighten things up.