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RSC As You Like It: Review

Home » Reviews » RSC As You Like It: Review

Kimberley Sykes is clearly on a mission to take control of theatre in the northwest. Her production of Maxine Peake’s Beryl has just opened at Bolton’s Octagon theatre, and now here she is, directing the RSC’s touring production of As You Like It.

The two productions share some key characteristics – relentless energy, playfulness and a fourth wall torn down and trampled into the dust. The outcome for the RSC is a joyful and largely triumphant reimagining of Shakespseare’s pastoral comedy.

Within the forest of Arden, an unjustly dispossessed duke is restored to his rightful status (without actually doing anything to make it happen) and 8, variously star-crossed, lovers find their ways to blissful union. Of course, shedloads of stuff happens along the way, but that’s the gist of it.

“All the world’s a stage,” observes the melancholic Jacques, and the set echoes that outlook, in section, recreating the Globe (or perhaps, the Rose). Sykes makes every effort to bring the audience into the action – sometimes literally. ‘Volunteers’ are hauled up on stage to assist the love-lorn. The most memorable of these involves a (far from unwilling) gentleman, who wears Orlando’s messages of love as a jacket of Post-it notes. Celia (Sophie Khan Levy) plucks and reads these, inviting the punter himself to assist:

RSC As You Like It
RSC As You Like It

“Thus!” he proclaims, with such assurance and gusto that Khan Levy brilliantly adlibs: “Are you classically trained?” The crowd laps this up – and rightly so.

This evening is a showpiece for theatre as a collaborative art form. The set (by Stephen Brimson Lewis) impresses without overwhelming the actors or the action. An enormous wheel of wooden slats stands as a backdrop to symbolise the forest and, as we enter Arden, the house lights go up, signifying the move from urban interior to rural exterior. Neatly done. At the finale, the plot’s deus ex machina (wherein the wicked Duke Frederick renounces his ill-gotten gains to pursue a life of religious contemplation) is matched by an almost literal deus, an enormous puppet, orchestrating the quartet of marriage ceremonies.

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    Tim Sutton’s music (performed live) is exquisitely eclectic (traditional folk swooping in and out of snatches of Mozart, Piazolla and others).

    The vibrant spirit of the show is embraced and reinforced at every turn and by each and every cast member. Sandy Grierson melds Begsby, Billy Connolly and a Roxy Music era Brian Eno into his frothing Touchstone. Antony Byrne is as violently chilling a Duke Frederick as he is a warm and conciliating Duke Senior. In one of several twists of gender, Sophie Stanton, as Madam Jacques provides a profound philosophical pessimism – we want to hug her, shake her or just gather at her feet and bathe in her sombre poetry.

    RSC As You Like It
    RSC As You Like It

    Aaron Thiara, standing in as Orlando, has no trouble persuading us that the impressive, witty Rosalind would fall for him, hook, line and sinker.

    As for Lucy Phelps, her Rosalind is truly a physical and vocal tour de force. Charming, witty and then passionately righteous at the court of Duke Frederick, she soars to another level in the guise of Ganymede, posturing and mugging with seemingly inexhaustible invention to draw her audience into complicity.

    The first RSC production of As You Like It I ever saw featured an up and coming Alan Rickman. Keep an eye on Lucy Phelps.

    The RSC production of As You Like It is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from 25 September to 5 October 2019.


    Read our interview with Director Kimberley Sykes.

    Read how the RSC created the huge puppet for Hymen, the God of Marriage.

    Written by
    Martin Thomasson

    A winner (with Les Smith) of the Manchester Evening News award for Best New Play, Martin taught script-writing at the universities of Bolton and Salford, before becoming an adjudicator and mentor for the 24:7 theatre festival. Over the years, in addition to drama, Martin has seen more ballet and contemporary dance than is wise for a man with two left feet, and much more opera than any other holder of a Grade 3 certificate in singing.

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    Martin Written by Martin Thomasson